PALS exhibit shows the healing power of art
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PALS exhibit shows the healing power of art

The art exhibit that took up every inch of the open wall space of Spencer Savings Bank in Clifton was particularly moving, said Ed Kurbansade, the branch manager.

The artwork, “in my office, in front of the teller windows, on the checkwriters,” said Kurbansade, was created by children in the local PALS program. Showcased in the bank from early April until last week, it got a “wonderful response.”

PALS, an acronym for Peace: A Learned Solution, is a joint program of The Samuel F. and Sylvia S. Riskin Center and the Passaic County Women’s Center. Funded through the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, it “helps reduce the effects of trauma for children ages 4 to 12 who have been exposed to domestic violence,” said Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Clifton/Passaic.

“Each piece has a description of what the artwork is,” said the bank manager, noting that while the artists’ names were not provided, tags noted the children’s ages and indicated “what the child was feeling at that time.”

“We sponsor quite a lot of community projects,” said Kurbansade, who was asked by JFS’ Mark Ricklis to host the PALS exhibit. On May 10, the bank sponsored a concluding viewing/reception, inviting not only program organizers but public officials as well.

“I think the exhibit is something that touches you when you know what the program is about,” said Kurbansade, adding that the art show had “quite a few visitors.”

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One of the artworks produced by children in the PALS program

“You have to read the captions,” he said. “They’re heart-wrenching but amazing. Hats off to the Riskin Center and the PALS program.”

East said that PALS, which offers both counseling and creative arts therapy for children who have witnessed domestic violence, is designed to “interrupt the cycle of violence.” She pointed out that children who come from violent homes have a greater potential either to be violent themselves or to choose violent partners.

The five-year-old program has served about 60 families a year, targeting children “not currently experiencing violence,” she said. “It’s a recovery and healing program.”

In addition to directly helping the victims, the program – which helps both Jews and non-Jews – “is of benefit to society at large,” said East, adding that art therapy is only one component of the program, which also includes music, dance, and recreational therapy.

“Kids can benefit from nonverbal therapy – play, movement, art,” she said, noting that sometimes, asking children to talk directly about a trauma can retraumatize them.

“This is an indirect way,” she said, explaining that the technique is also helpful for children who have had a traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent or sibling.

East said this is the first time the center has displayed the children’s art in a public setting.

“It shows people in the community some of the things we do,” she said, adding that she hopes people who need such resources will be motivated to call. Children can be referred to the PALS program “through many doors,” she said, citing pediatricians, courts, and schools as examples.

East said the art displayed at the bank – primarily large sheets of paper filled with drawings but including other kinds of media as well – was done both by individuals and as group projects.

Donna Fredrickson, art therapist at the Riskin Center, said the art “is a wonderful metaphor” for what’s going on in the children’s lives. “It helps them learn to problem-solve,” she said, adding that some of the art can also be diagnostic.

“[The children] are fragile when they first come in,” she said. “It’s very helpful.”

Fredrickson, who has worked at the center for some 10 years, noted that most of the murals that hung in the bank represented group work, through which the children, coming from an environment in which they saw domestic strife, “learned how to get along with one another.”

Sometimes the artworks – created over a period of several years by scores of youngsters – were spontaneous, she said, but sometimes they were based on her suggestions. In addition to the drawings, the children produced mobiles made of items like Styrofoam or plastic spoons.

Some of the figures they fashioned were “metaphors for themselves,” she said. “It provided an opportunity for the child to say what is going on” with that particular object.

Later, “when they have trust, they can generalize” and discuss their own situation.

The exhibit was “empowering,” she said, enabling the children to say, “Look at what I did, and it was accepted.”

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