Parent finds refuge in art and understanding

By Louise Kinross

Di Huang (above left) was intrigued by an art group at Holland Bloorview that connects parents of children with disabilities with nature.

“We made our own paint, and the ingredients we used were spirulina powder for green, beet root powder for pink, and cocoa powder for brown,” Di says. “The instructor brought in some leaves from the garden and we used tree sticks instead of brushes to paint. That was so fun and out of the box.”

Di, whose four-year-old son has autism, found the activity “peaceful. When you have a child with a disability, life is very busy. It’s always go, go, go. I can’t even go to sleep peacefully at night because I’m always worried about something.”

Coming to the free Wellness through the Arts for Caregivers workshops gave her a 90-minute refuge where she could sit in a light-filled studio with other parents who understand her and make art. “It’s calming, and even though my problems may still be there, for a couple of hours I can take a break.”

The small, hands-on art groups for parents “foster a sense of belonging and allow caregivers to nurture their artistic curiosity and do something for themselves,” says Shannon Crossman (above right), the artist who leads the sessions with a family mentor who has experience parenting a child with a disability. “We hope to create a safe space where they can shift their nervous system from that of ‘fight or flight’ to that of ‘rest and digest,’ and we hear parents say things like ‘This is the first time I’ve exhaled in six years.'”

Participants may work with clay or make paper or paint. “Some participants may have some hesitation about painting, so I’m always trying to find ways that people feel it’s accessible, doable and they feel safe,” Shannon says.

Di has done art in other settings, including art therapy, but “it was more organized, and you had to follow the instructor step by step. This one is open and you can draw whatever you want. We also did an intuitive exercise where you draw with your eyes closed, and let your hand go wherever it wants to.”

Shannon says the group begins with short introductions and a ringing of the chimes “to bring us together and focused in the moment. We might do some simple deep-pressure exercises that are relaxing and grounding, and give participants a sense of where their bodies are in space.” 

Wellness through the Arts ran before the pandemic, but is a pilot in its current iteration, funded by donors through the Sparks program. 

“The way Shannon leads the group is really unique,” Di says. “First, she’s a very calm person. Some art instructors I’ve been with are not very calm. Being around Shannon helps me feel peaceful. Second, the concepts she introduces are good techniques that you might not find elsewhere—like using the tree branches to draw and using natural materials. Looking back, it makes me think that when we think we are limited, we are not limited.”

A family mentor acts as a sounding board for parents and can connect them with other hospital resources.

“I hope I can learn from the experiences of other parents and that maybe I can prepare for things so that they’re easier for my child,” Di says. “The program shows that the hospital cares about the wellbeing of parents and that improved my impression of the hospital.”

The next Wellness through the Arts workshop for inpatient parents is March 21 from 10:30-11:30 a.m. in the large art studio on the first floor. The program is seeking long-term funding. Like this story? Sign up for our monthly BLOOM e-letter, follow @LouiseKinross on Twitter, or watch our A Family Like Mine video series.

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