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Kids in Modesto are struggling with mental health. How can art help?

Modesto Bee - 5/29/2024

May 29—In Modesto, many kids struggle with their mental health. While art therapy can help reduce stress and anxiety, it isn't always accessible. In response, Modesto City Schools introduced art creation as a way to heal students in disadvantaged areas.

During the school year, art-making sessions were conducted at schools, offering students a platform to explore their emotions through music, poetry and painting. The project focused on schools in economically disadvantaged communities, as determined by the California Healthy Place Index (HPI).

Vielka Solano, who led the workshops, said that initially, many poems revolved around cheerful topics like Christmas and food. However, as students became more expressive, they delved into their emotions.

Students explored themes such as family, separation and the challenges they observed their parents face.

"I think at the end, we saw that they opened up," Solano said.

She said numerous students immigrated from other countries and were encouraged to write in their native language to honor their heritage, resulting in many poems in Spanish.

One student wrote about having to leave behind her pet dog and parrot in Mexico. She expressed her desire to obtain passports for them to join her, only to discover later that her dog had gone missing.

Participating schools included Orville Wright, Mark Twain, Franklin, Robertson Road and Bret Harte. In May, each location showcased an unveiling of its students' work.

The students' poems were compiled into a book for each school, featuring the students' paintings as the cover.

At the end-of-the-year showcase at Bret Harte Elementary on May 22, several students read their poems on stage, with the artwork they created as the backdrop.

Dalilah Escamilla, a fifth-grader, recited one of her poems.

"If a storm was coming to my house, I would bring a family photo because it was the last time I saw my siblings kinda happy with my mom," her poem read.

Students who were part of the drum circle, led by drummer David Rogers, also performed.

Healing through poetry

Solano, who is also a doctor, said she believes medicine and art go hand in hand, as a means of healing.

Working in the medical field, she said she sees a lot of trauma among kids, particularly those with mental health struggles.

Solano believes COVID-19 has deeply affected kids' mental health due to isolation. When they returned after lockdown, she noticed they were different, often acting out more. She saw this change reflected in their poetry.

In her 28 years of practicing medicine, she said she has never prescribed this much medication before.

"I had never seen [that] amount of kids having mental issues," Solano said.

According to the California School Climate, Health, & Learning Survey, 29% of Modesto City Elementary students experienced "frequent sadness" during the 2022-23 school year.

"I hope that this is [the start] of a healing process," Solano said.

Exposure to art

The selected four elementary schools are the most economically disadvantaged in the district, with the lowest HPI.

"Kids are coming from very low-income families that don't have the opportunity to be exposed to all of this. At least they have this exposure," Solano said.

Solano said some parents approached them, saying their children couldn't stop discussing the workshop. The children were also thrilled to see their poetry book, a tangible representation of their efforts.

Rogers said his favorite moment is when the parents pick up their kids after the program and the kids say they want to stay longer — even after being at school all day.

"You can see their faces. I mean that's the beauty of elementary school. They're going to tell you if they're having fun," Rogers said.

Rogers, who grew up in west Modesto, emphasizes the importance of providing students in lower-income schools with access to and exposure to the arts.

He notes that wealthier schools likely offer more resources and exposure to such opportunities, making programs like this crucial for schools with limited funding.

"Everybody should have access to cool things," he said.

In the music workshops, he arranges chairs in a circle, ensuring everyone can see one another and fostering equality among all participants. The students experiment with drums from various cultures, including African, Cuban and Native American.

By mastering drumming, he believes students can gain the confidence to tackle anything.

"When you sit down at the drum, and then three minutes later, you're in rhythm and you've never played a musical instrument before, you know that's going to translate into other aspects of your life," Rogers said.


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