Healing Hearts is more than just the name of a program at the Saint Louis Crisis Nursery. It is more than broken crayons, worn out markers and well-loved puppets. It is more than oozy finger painting, organizing furniture in a wooden dollhouse and sparkly glitter. It is more than colorful beads, ripped construction paper and squishy play-dough. It is a program that uses all of these fun and creative mediums to help heal the hearts of children all over the St. Charles and St. Louis region.
Children come to the Crisis Nursery when their parents are dealing with overwhelming stress from homelessness, illness, domestic violence or unemployment. “This trauma can be difficult for most adults to deal with, but is especially challenging for a child,” says the Crisis Nursery’s Registered Art Therapist, Ann Wier. “We encourage children to use art and play as a way to express themselves in a language that is comfortable and natural for them. Art and Play Therapies help children who are struggling to cope with difficult situations.”
Most kids define therapy as being ‘boring,’ ‘just talking’ or ‘for big people.’ In the Healing Hearts Program, kids get to use fun things like art supplies, recycled items, dolls, puppets, toys and games to process trauma and big emotions while feeling safe, making cool stuff, and playing fun games.
Tiffany*, ten years old, came to the Nursery after her mother left a domestic violence situation. Although she was withdrawn and angry, she was interested in painting and agreed to meet with Ann, the Art Therapist. As Tiffany began to paint, she became more relaxed and said that painting makes her feel happy. Tiffany chose to paint the night sky full of stars and explained, “I made a lot of stars so that I could have a lot of wishes. I would wish for a house for my mom and me, I would wish for lots of yummy food like I get at the Nursery, and I would wish for my dad to be nice to my mom so we could be a family again.” When she returned from her session, she happily joined the other kiddos in a dress-up fashion show.
Billy, eight years old, was having nightmares because someone broke into his house while the family slept. Now in the safety of the Crisis Nursery, Billy cried as he used dolls in the dollhouse to reenact the scary night. Registered Play Therapist at the Crisis Nursery, Lisa Cholley, helped him open up about what had happened and talk about some things he could do when he feels scared again such as taking deep breaths, writing or drawing his feelings in a journal, or talking to a trusted adult.
Even the age-old favorite, Candy Land, gets a re-boot in Play Therapy. Sara, age 6, was yelling at other children and angrily throwing toys. When she played Candy Land in her Play Therapy session, the rules changed a little bit. Each color represents a feeling; red is angry, blue is happy, green is scared, and so on. When Sara picked a red card, she would tell Lisa something that made her angry, when she pulled a blue card, she would talk about something that made her happy. By putting a name to her feelings, she was able to relieve the stress of holding all those feelings inside.
Many of the kids that stay at the Nursery may not make artwork at home because they do not have the art supplies available. During an Art Therapy session, children learn they can use recycled materials like cereal boxes, popsicle sticks, and plastic cups to be creative. Seven-year-old Jacob wanted to make a ‘Helping Robot.’ He used a shoe box for the body, tongue depressors for arms, a pipe cleaner for an angry mouth, googly eyes, and plenty of stickers to make his robot. At the end of his Art Therapy session, he said, “I get mad a lot, and sometimes I wish I could give it away. I drew the things I am angry about and put them in the robot’s brain. Now he can think about them, and I can go play.”
The Crisis Nursery has been part of the St. Charles community for 26 years. In 1992, the Crisis Nursery opened on the grounds of St. Joseph Hospital on First Capital Dr.; in 1997 the Nursery moved into its current location across the street. Because of increased demand, the Wentzville location was added in 2008. Since 1992, over 35,000 children have stayed at either the St. Charles or Wentzville locations.
“Making sure children feel safe and loved is a big part of what we do.” DiAnne Mueller, CEO of the Crisis Nursery, explained. “The Healing Hearts Program has helped hundreds and hundreds of children deal with trauma from gun violence, domestic violence, natural disasters, divorce, homelessness, the death of loved ones. These are things with which most adults would have trouble dealing. It is hard to see how much emotional baggage some of the children carry; it is so gratifying to help lighten the load. To just let them be kids.”
The Saint Louis Crisis Nursery is committed to preventing child abuse and neglect. The Crisis Nursery provides a short-term, safe haven for almost 7,000 children a year, birth through age 12, whose families face an emergency caused by illness, homelessness, domestic violence, or overwhelming parental stress. The Crisis Nursery provides care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at five sites, serving families throughout the greater St. Louis, St. Charles, Southern Illinois and surrounding regions. Providing respite care to stressed parents in crisis prevents child abuse. The Crisis Nursery is an independent, not-for-profit agency. For more information on the Crisis Nursery, including ways to help, please call 314-292-5770 or go to CrisisNurseryKids.org
*all children’s names have been changed