Saturdays for self

Psychotherapist and art historian Jean Henry, M.S.S. '92 created the Saturday Program for Mothers and Children Living in Shelters, which brought them into Philadelphia's greater community and afforded opportunities for creative expression of the self through weekly arts sessions.

By Jean Henry, M.S.S. '92

On an October day in 1989, I took a walk across the Drexel University campus, passing the fenced-in backyard of an abandoned West Philadelphia church. Several small children stood alone in a barren, treeless, dirt covered space, their faces pressed up against the fence, calling to me: "Where are you going?" I smiled and walked over. Our flattened palms touched through the wire.

"What are you doing at the church all by yourselves? It's not Sunday," I asked. One of the children replied, "We live here." I said playfully, "Noooooooo, nobody lives in a church." All the little kids chimed in, happily repeating, shaking their heads, "Yes, we do." We talked and laughed together a while longer then I walked on, looking back to take in their sparse play yard and hopeful faces still silhouetted against the fence. They watched me disappear.

At that time, I was a 50-year-old student at Bryn Mawr's Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, an art historian with years of university teaching and administration, director of Drexel University's Museum and a developing psychotherapist.

Throughout my career in the arts I had always been interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. While chairing an art department at the University of New Haven, I held a Mellon Fellowship for Visiting Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry guided by psychoanalyst Dr. Sidney Blatt and studied as a Special Student at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis. When I met the children I had no plans to become a full-time psychotherapist, but they changed my plans.

Something in the sweetness of the youngsters' faces and our exchange overpowered my frustration about the then failing fortunes of the university and within that crisis the problems for the museum. On and off during that night I thought about the children instead of fretting about the job. I hoped there was something I might do to help keep the children connected to the larger world, not just the world of shelters.

The next day, I returned to the church and knocked at the front door. When I entered, I was engulfed by a dank, dark interior filled with a throng-babies yowling, children running back and forth and sad faced mothers. The residents lived in thinly partitioned areas with only the most meager accommodations-a bed and a shelf. Still, it was better than the street. I met the staff who were doing their best to provide services to their charges. I asked if I could take the kids to the university on Saturday for some art activities. To my surprise, since they did not know me, they agreed. I headed back to the museum, excited to share this news with the museum staff, all of whom asked to help on their day off. We devised art projects to be carried out in the classrooms adjacent to the main gallery and then set out to gather materials and snacks.

On Saturday at the shelter, it took me an hour to convince several mothers to let six or eight young children accompany me. A couple of pregnant teen-agers agreed to join us. I enlisted only one mother. Her heavy lidded eyes didn't appear to take in her surroundings or me. Her shoulders were hunched and her gait was slow. Without expression she recounted, "I have five children, no skills to find work and and ran away from my abusive husband. Ending up in a shelter leaves us with no hope and no decent future."

Reluctantly, she and the children came with me. That day we had a wonderful time finger-painting, stringing beads for simple jewelry, looking at the artworks in the gallery and sharing sandwiches and fruit juice. We made special efforts to involve the mother who still seemed defeated and embarrassed by her circumstances. By the end of the afternoon her spirits improved. Smiling, she clutched the necklace she designed and told us, "As a child I never had the chance to do this." She and her children became our marketing department, encouraging others from the shelter to join in during later sessions.

Polaroids, lieder, choreography
That first day grew into the Saturday Program for Mothers and Children Living in Shelters, weekly arts sessions held over the next two years. Guided by paid experts and volunteers (staff and people from the community), children made puppets, murals, wrote and staged their own plays, made their own basic sets and costumes-every activity designed to be completed in that one day in case the child did not return the next week. For the infants and toddlers, we arranged a quiet room with pads and blankets for them to sleep on or read peacefully with a volunteer. Children in shelters often do not have pictures of themselves or their families. We offered Polaroid cameras so they could take photos of each other and see the results immediately. They became curious about the operation of the camera and cooperative in both picture taking and posing. Teens and mothers learned to use computers in the university computer lab and reproduced the photos with a scanner, creating multiple copies for families.

We had some unusual programs that we were not sure about. A professional opera singer sang German leider accompanied by a pianist. They performed in the main picture gallery. Our fears that the youngsters might not appreciate the art form were allayed when everyone seated on the floor listened intently; the singer brought teen-age boys to tears and encouraged a mother to sing with her own beautiful voice. Another week we emptied a classroom of chairs and a dance company taught the children a routine. The dancers showed simple steps that ended with a performance of five lines of children dancing combinations of those steps. One line moved across the room with a fast set, the next line followed at a different tempo, until each line had performed then the first line started again with yet another set of combinations. At the end, this seemingly simple activity provided syncopated movements, rhythmic sounds and flashing maneuvers that the caused the mothers, volunteers, teachers and child dancers themselves to burst into spontaneous applause.

At the height of the program we served five shelters, garnering enough donations to afford to hire a bus to take us on trips. We also bought tickets to other exhibit spaces and performances. On any given Saturday afternoon, we served 40-70 mothers ages 14 through mid-30's, and children from several weeks to 18 years old. For the most part, because shelters are temporary housing, we might see any individual child from one to several times. Only a very few did we see for months. Not knowing what happened to the children proved hard on the staff and volunteers' emotions.

Informed by Anna Freud
By January 1990, the museum staff began a more formal experimental pilot program. From study at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis and my classes at Bryn Mawr, I was informed by the work of Anna Freud and others on children traumatized by war, displacement and loss of parents. Freud raised money and opened a school to help displaced and homeless children in many ways including education and therapy. With these ideas in mind we provided cultural and literacy activities for children living in shelters in Philadelphia. We developed a schedule and structure for activities, along with a list of suitable volunteers, close to 100 on our register, using the services of 20 each week. Through donations, I was able to assign a portion of one staff member's time to coordinating and overseeing the volunteers, a critical function to keep any program going. The museum staff continued to volunteer.

Paid outside experts along with the staff designed the program to stimulate a sense of self-control, self worth, cooperation, respect for others and exploration of options and alternatives, as well as creative capabilities. Our program aimed to provide personal contact to children, which consisted of individual attention; encouraging talking; participation in creative expression of the self; connection to the larger community; consistency through meeting times, place and staff; focus on activities; and enhancing self-esteem and understanding. We plan-ned the activities to engage the participants' imagination and encourage new ways of thinking about themselves and others and acting on those thoughts.

The staff and community people volunteered every Saturday for two years (including all holidays) because some children and their mothers roamed the streets or moved from one unsavory place to another. These kids had been left out of schools. Most had no sense of belonging anywhere. While the shelters provided only a transitional solution we knew we could give them an invitation back into the greater community and the most important cultural institutions in Philadelphia. Our commitment was to bring the children out of the shelters even if it was only for a few hours, to include them in the larger world, not to take a few activities into a smaller world. It turned out that our actions allowed us to feel helped too. We dissipated our fears that perhaps we too could end up in such a dilemma and that no one would care. While it was hard work, we felt the program was successful when the children would sing out, "We're going to college today."

There were problems. As successful as the Saturday Program was, we learned that our desire and the sustained efforts of volunteers from many professions along with the support of state and local cultural, literacy and educational organizations was not enough. The Saturday Program ended when Drexel University's Board faced with then ongoing financial crisis, decided to close the museum, perhaps sell parts of the collection for general revenue, return a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for the museum's development and eschew the promised financial support of foundations. Like the mothers and children that we served, the Saturday program needed a stable structure in which to thrive. When the museum ceased operation in June 1991, the Archaeological and Anthropological Museum of the University of Pennsylvania invited us to continue temporarily in their classrooms. Though we had an interim space it functioned much as homeless shelters served the mothers and children as a short-term solution. Even organizations that possess a permanent space discover that without a paid volunteer coordinator, things fall apart. We found that without a long-term home, an organizational home from which to write grants to raise the money to pay experts and buy materials and at least one part-time paid staff to organize details and the volunteers, the program in the long run proved unsustainable.

Despite the museum's closing in 1991, I still receive inquiries about the Saturday Program for Mothers and Children Living in Shelters. The American Association of Museums included the Saturday Program in its publication on volunteer programs. The American Psychological Association (Psychoanalytic Division 39) invited me to present a paper concerning our efforts at its Annual Meeting in Washington D. C., August 4-8, 2000. ERIC-CASS a world wide educational data base from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro published the paper in its worldwide Resources in Education (RIE) 2001. Preserving the idea in printed form keeps it alive.

Our vision of hope for the future included the Saturday Program's replication by other established cultural institutions. While the activities we offered are widely available for most children they are not for those in shelters. For example, an orchestra might focus on a range of musical events and rehearsals with forays into other aspects of its activities perhaps including music appreciation lectures. A theater group might help kids seek adventures in all the elements of bringing a production to fruition such as rehearsals and making stage sets and costumes. In addition to the shelters, if a variety of cultural organizations of all sizes saw, heard and understood the mothers and children needs there could be a wider network not only for their survival but also their thriving. The Saturday Program for Mothers and Children Living in Shelters remains a good idea but a dream deferred.

Jean Henry, Ph.D., M.S.S., B.C.D., Bryn Mawr College, Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research '92, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice in Center City, Philadelphia. She is writing a novel about racism and the arts, The Town Where Martin Luther King Failed.

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