Drawing traumatised kids out with art

SINGAPORE- Sitting in her Tanglin Road white and pastel blue art therapy room, Mrs Laurence Vandenborre seems a world away from the mangled villages and uprooted homes left in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

However, she was one of the first people in Singapore who went to the Philippines to lend a hand when disaster struck.

Last month, the 51-year-old joined the Singapore Red Cross' disaster relief team to help in an unusual way - art therapy.

While doctors treated patients in mobile clinics in Ormoc, Mrs Vandenborre set up booths with crayons, colour pencils and art materials. Children came to express their emotions through drawing.

"The situation was depressing," Mrs Vandenborre said. "Long queues of patients, young mothers with children in their arms, all waiting to get treated.

"For children, so many things have happened which they may not understand. They have lost their homes, some even their loved ones. But when you put a crayon in a child's hands, suddenly their eyes light up.

"They can focus their energies on something different - the creative process. Children may not have the vocabulary to express emotions but we can see their inner world through pictures."

Unlike food, shelter or water, psychosocial help might not seem an urgent need after a disaster. But early intervention is necessary so children affected do not bottle up their emotions and let fear create a deep scar.

"If they close up, it's far more difficult to get them to open up later," Mrs Vandenborre explained. During her five-day trip, she helped more than 80 children who came to draw and talk to her about their experience.

"Many drew pictures of rain, broken houses and lightning. Some were also thankful for hospitals and help," she said.

Emergency disaster relief work was a first for the Singapore permanent resident, who has been practising art therapy for more than 10 years.

The heat of the situation brings new challenges. How can art therapists keep in contact with patients in a disaster area where communication systems are down? How can aid teams identify children who need help most?

Mrs Vandenborre crossed each bridge as she came to it. She runs The Red Pencil, a Singapore- based charity that is sending two art therapists with every Singapore Red Cross team visiting the Philippines.

All of them will write field reports to amass knowledge on art therapy during disaster relief.

"The important thing is to keep going at it," she said. "Red Cross teams and the local authorities become more familiar with our work. They know who to turn to if they see a traumatised child."

Born in Belgium, Mrs Vandenborre's journey into art began with a birthday gift from her husband Alain, president and co- founder of Singapore FreePort. The easel he gave her 20 years ago still stands in her studio.

"He said, 'I think you will like this.' I took art classes and fell in love with it," said the mother of two, for whom painting has remained a constant passion. "It is like having a visual journal, a companion you entrust of your ongoing personal processes with."

The Vandenborres moved to Singapore in 1997 and a friend introduced her to art therapy.

"I love art and I love helping people. Art therapy was perfect for me," said Mrs Vandenborre, who took online classes and eventually earned a master's degree in art therapy from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2006.

"Art therapists are midwives for the soul. People give birth to a creation on paper and these are windows to their world.

"We dialogue about the drawing, the emotions it has triggered. My job is to listen to their story in a non-judgmental way."

Today The Red Pencil, which she founded three years ago, has more than 90 art therapists on its list. Its international arm aims to send art therapists to disaster relief and conflict zones while its local arm sponsors art therapists at KK Women's and Children's Hospital and at some family service centres. Donations come from corporations and private individuals.

"It's important for art therapists to be paid," said Mrs Vandenborre, whose foundation's local arm was recently accorded Institution of a Public Character status. "The last thing we want is people graduating from a full-fledged art therapy master's but choosing to do something else because they are not paid."

She also runs art therapy sessions at prisons. "Inmates often become calmer after art therapy. You release a lot of frustration when you scribble with a crayon or knead a piece of clay. It's better to release frustration bit by bit instead of all at once in violence."

Art therapy is gaining popularity in Singapore but Mrs Vandenborre hopes to take it to Syria.

"I read a newspaper article the other day. Psychologists said some children there are so affected by war they no longer speak. Art therapy should be there next."

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