October 15, 2019

This arts nonprofit takes the whole village approach to healing

In New Orleans, where high rates of childhood trauma persist over a decade after Hurricane Katrina, Whole Village Art Therapy uses art to heal a community.

Whole Village Art Therapy provides a creative and therapeutic outlet for young people in New Orleans. Photos courtesy of Whole Village Art Therapy

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes creativity to keep the whole village mentally healthy.

I was an elementary school teacher in New York City before deciding to go back to graduate school to study art therapy. On the first day of grad school, the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. That was the day I first met my partner, who was from New Orleans and also studying to become an art therapist. Upon graduation, he felt the pull to return to his roots in Louisiana, and I recognized that my training as an art therapist was needed there.

Art therapy is an integrative mental health profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active artmaking, the creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a therapeutic relationship. Learning to be an art therapist and counselor gave me the skills to support others through the sometimes painful but therapeutic process of authentic emotional expression.

Art therapy is an integrative mental health profession that uses artmaking, the creative process, and applied psychological theory to help individuals, families, and communities.

However, school couldn’t have prepared me for the mental health disaster in New Orleans following the hurricane’s aftermath. I worked as an art therapist in the schools after Hurricane Katrina, and I found that the children responded to the opportunity to make art in a safe, supported environment. I will never forget one of my very first art therapy groups where ten 8-year olds all burst out crying at the same time because of everything they had been through. No research paper, textbook, or professor’s anecdote had ever described something like this. Luckily, we had a language in the art that was safer, natural, and conducive to expressing what they were feeling.

Even years after Hurricane Katrina, trauma remains a persistent problem in New Orleans. Louisiana ranks last in the nation for children who need but do not receive mental health services. There is an urgent and ongoing need for high quality mental health services in New Orleans.

There was a lack of emphasis on preventative care or building mentally healthy communities. I realized that there had to be a better way to reach the entire community.

After working in public schools in New Orleans for seven years, I began receiving referrals from immigration lawyers, social workers, counselors, neighbors, and friends because they were unable to find the art therapy services they needed for their children and clients. Insurance didn’t cover certain services. Transportation problems persisted. Parents had trouble accessing resources, or the support services they received were inadequate or poorly prepared. There was a lack of emphasis on preventative care or building mentally healthy communities. I realized that there had to be a better way to reach the entire community.

As a board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor, I took matters into my own hands and started seeing these kids for free at my dining room table. Eventually, my living room became the waiting room, and my dining room turned into the art therapy studio. Despite having no funding, I decided that it was time to start a nonprofit.

In 2016, I founded Whole Village Art Therapy with the specific purpose of providing high-quality support and overcoming systemic barriers to mental health services for the whole community. The goal is not just to support the wellness of children, but also to give their parents, teachers, neighbors, and other community members opportunities for strength through artmaking. That’s why we call it Whole Village Art Therapy. Besides counseling and art therapy services, we offer preventative care through free community artmaking events. We don’t have a building, but instead we go directly to the organizations and schools so the art therapy is available where it is needed.

Three years later, we have seven art therapists on our team who partner with 30+ organizations in and around New Orleans to provide supports in a variety of ways. Our team of art therapists provide free and sliding scale individual and group art therapy, school based art therapy services, counseling, community art making, and professional development. I believe in the cultural relevance of art therapy in New Orleans, and I want to continue training art therapists and growing the field into greater sustainability.

Be part of the Village! Please support our mission by donating at our website wholevillageart.org. If you live in the New Orleans area, please consider coming to the free therapeutic artmaking and community artmaking experiences we offer every month. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram to stay informed on our activities and opportunities for artmaking.

Holly Wherry

Holly Wherry

Holly Wherry is the Executive Director and founder of Whole Village Art Therapy, Inc. She is a board-certified art therapist, licensed professional counselor, and board-approved supervisor with more than 12 years of experience in providing art therapy to a variety of people, with a specialization in trauma. Through Holly’s work, Whole Village Art Therapy has provided art therapy and counseling services throughout New Orleans to schools and other community organizations. Holly earned a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from the University of Iowa, a Master of Science in Teaching from Pace University, and a Master of Arts in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Before going back to graduate school to become an art therapist, she was a classroom teacher in New York City for three years while obtaining her graduate degree in teaching. Holly worked as an art therapist in India for a year, where she continues to volunteer her time to professionals and organizations through workshops, trainings, and supervision both remotely and in India. She has taught workshops and lectured nationally and internationally. As a board-approved supervisor for counselors and art therapists, Holly supervises new graduates and art therapists moving to Louisiana and working on their licensure and certification.
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