Encouraging Youth Wellness through Art

Encouraging Youth Wellness through Art

Jamie Sylvestri and The Staff of ArtVan

This vehicle is designed to promote change. Since 2004, the ArtVan and its occupants deliver therapeutic art activities to underserved communities in Sagadahoc, Cumberland, and York counties. The project, conceived and directed by Jamie Sylvestri, rolls up to neighborhoods and invites kids (average age 9 to 12 years) to express themselves through art. The children engage with various materials and discover outlets for healthy self-expression.

Jamie Sylvestri and her ArtVan colleague Bailey Knox are expressive art therapists. Believing in the power of creative energy, they use art projects to help children. Both women hold master’s degrees in expressive art therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both were fine artists before choosing to focus on art therapy. “We have the skill set to support a kid if they want to draw a portrait or a horse,” Jamie said. “What is different about the art therapy piece of what we do, as opposed to an art class, is that we are not product-focused. We are process-oriented.”

Jamie learned about art therapy while living in New York City during the late 1980s. At the time the Poughkeepsie, New York, native was trying to establish herself as a professional artist but found it necessary to work three jobs in order to support herself. During one of her subway commutes between her jobs working at a bar, a jeweler, and a Boys and Girls Club, she was intrigued to read an article about art therapy. The young woman decided that’s what she wanted to do and attended Lesley to get an advanced degree in art therapy. After graduation, she worked a year in Natick, Massachusetts, before moving to Maine.

In Maine, Jamie worked as an art therapist in the adolescent Psychiatric Unit at St. Mary’s Hospital. Once she began having her own children, Jamie transitioned to part-time work which placed her in a variety of settings. She became more aware of the kids in the community who needed her attention—in her words, they were wandering the streets, experimenting with things, and truant from school. When her three children were all in school on a full-time basis, Jamie explored the potential for her to do more for the community’s children. In 2002, she participated in the Bath Skate Park Committee, a park envisioned as a place to channel kids’ restless energy. The park, originally located in the Bath YMCA, didn’t serve all kids. Jamie realized that some didn’t have an interest in skating, others lacked transportation to get to the park, and there were other impediments. When Bath’s Department of Recreation offered Jamie a derelict van, she seized the opportunity and got the ArtVan on the road.

It may not be obvious to the casual visitor, but programs such as ArtVan are sorely needed resources in communities across Maine. The US Census QuickFact data on Bath, for example, identifies that nearly 14 percent of residents live in poverty and that 22 percent of all residents are 18 years old or under. The problems that the community face in a good year were compounded in 2020 by COVID-19. ArtVan offers kids a chance to release pent up feelings, connect with their creativity and imagination, and feel a sense of positive possibilities for themselves. The intent? Greater wellness.

Prior to an art activity, Jamie and Bailey plan a theme for the week’s session. One recent theme was, “What’s your magic power?” Jalin Coleman found one of hers through her participation in ArtVan. She first became involved while in seventh grade. “ArtVan was a great escape from anxiety and depression.” Jalin said. On occasion, she works as a contract artist for the organization. The young artist proudly showed me one of her artistic creations that she had stored on her phone. It was colorful with expressive lines. Jalin hopes someday to express her in a different way. She would like to be a baker specializing in desserts.

Because attendance in ArtVan activities is voluntary, participants can change on a weekly basis; thus, each session begins with a quick assessment to help the art therapists gauge the average age of the group, the group’s energy level, and their willingness to engage in the activity. The way a project is presented is tailored and adjusted based on that day’s assessment. Jamie’s foremost evaluation of success for ArtVan activities is whether a child feels sufficiently safe to engage with the materials and express how they are feeling. The next level for success is whether they can share their feelings with ArtVan staff and other participants.

During the warm weather months, ArtVan activities are held outside. Because of COVID-19, staff used hula hoops, set six feet apart, to create individualized art spaces. In inclement weather, ArtVan has traditionally relied on community centers, but the closure of these centers due to COVID has caused Silvestri to adapt. ArtVan now delivers supplies directly to the kids. Bailey Knox misses the “level of fun and chaos that you have with groups of kids.” Although group activities have been curtailed, ArtVan has not, as yet, restricted the number of kids they serve, which is about 2000 kids a year. The costs to provide their service, however, has increased. In group settings, supplies were reused or repurposed. The art bags that ArtVan delivers contain supplies that are not meant to be shared. The annual budget for ArtVan has been less than $140,000 and covers the salary for two part-time professional art therapists, two other part-time employees, a bookkeeper, and supplies.

Shannon Els, who manages the development and communication functions for ArtVan, observes that art is a powerful tool, one that builds resilience and creative problem solving. Art has been an important element in what has helped support many through the pandemic, such as “theater, books, comedy, painting, sculpting, knitting, etc. Everyone deserves to explore their own creative gifts,” she says. The people of ArtVan “offer a safe space to come as you are and create what comes to you naturally.”

Jamie Sylvestri has no desire to expand the size of her organization. She would, however, gladly share her model with any art therapist who wanted to recreate it for another community. Jamie believes ArtVan is the only art therapy organization in Maine bringing programming directly to those who would benefit. One thing she would change is to have sufficient funds to employ her staff full-time and increase salaries so they are on a par with others in the industry and commensurate with the staff’s professional training. Otherwise, Jamie Silvestri believes her group is doing a good job to fill the needs of the community they serve. ArtVan brings clinical expertise in art therapy and provide projects designed to promote “overall human wellness.”

For more information: ArtVan’s mailing address is 10 State Rd., PMB 272, Bath, ME, 04530. Their website address is artvanprogram.org. Cash and material donations are always appreciated. Materials needed: acrylic paints, oil pastels, colorful card envelopes, card stock, scrapbook paper, paper towel and toilet rolls, and office supplies like printer ink.

Author profile
Pam Ferris-Olson

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