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Tornado victims use art therapy as recovery relief

Posted by Noelle Richard  March 13, 2012 09:00 AM

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By Noelle Richard and Kim Kern

Patricia Hempel watches as a little girl draws a sun shining and then proceeds to color the whole page black, covering it up.

“These kids have a lot to work through,” she says.

Hempel has begun a series of art therapy classes at Brimfield’s Hitchcock Academy for those still coping with the trauma of last June’s tornadoes that swept across Western Massachusetts.

“It’s not about the product, it’s about the process," says Hempel when describing the art produced in the sessions.

"It’s about putting what they are feeling down on paper and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. What matters is they are getting it out from within them and they are getting it down on something. That’s the therapeutic piece.”

Earlier this year, Hempel conducted a series of art therapy sessions for children ages six and under. They worked with pastels, water colors, and colored tissue paper to talk about the tornado said Hempel.

Susan Gregory, the Academy’s executive director, says parents register their children for the sessions, hoping that creating art will help their process their feelings and reduce anxiety.

“It gave them an opportunity to process how they viewed their life before the tornado, during the tornado and after the tornado,” said Hempel.

During one recent session, children painted a shoe box and covered it with colored tissue paper, making a storm box. The storm box was packed with different craft items and stuff to do during the storm to keep the kids busy.

“It’s kind of a way of helping the parent to distract the child because kids are really anxious when it gets dark outside now, during a storm,” said Hempel. “

Parents “shared some of the concerns about [re]occurring fears and they seem to be triggered by experiences like windy days, rainy days, or thunder storms especially,” said Gregory.

“It’s been the fear. It’s been the outright crying and hiding. It’s just very classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it’s flashback time. So that’s what these kids are going through, and the adults as well,” said Hempel.

With the adults, Hempel is working on putting a “positive spin on a negative spin.” Hempel is having the adults make collages of 5x7 cards that they can either paint or attach magazine clippings about what their lives were like before the tornado, during the tornado and what the future will be like.

“If they can get the feelings out of them and down on something it makes them feel better,” said Hempel.

Hempel has not seen an increase in patients at her clinic in Southbridge since the tornadoes. She believes that it’s going to be a ripple effect; that perhaps in a year’s time when it really settles in with people, she may see an increase in patients with PTSD.

“I am such a lover of art therapy. I wish it was utilized more because it is so helpful in so many areas, not just in trauma. It works in all sorts of different situations.”

Pat is running another six week session starting at the end of April that will lead up to June 1 for the families affected in the Southbridge area.

Hitchcock Academy offers a series of tornado relief events and classes that are funded by Community Foundation of Western MA and Hanover Insurance. These classes will continue until all the funding is utilized. Tuition to attend one of these classes is free for those directly impacted by the tornado.


Kim Kern can be reached at klkern16@gmail.com or on Twitter at @kernkimberly

Noelle Richard can be reached at noellejrich@gmail.com or on Twitter at @noellejrich

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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