Art program offers creative space for kids of the incarcerated 


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Edie Wren recalls the sense of isolation, the struggles with anger and sorrow, and the incredible sense of shame. She remembers being told by a teacher that her father was a bad man.

As the daughter of an inmate, Wren sympathizes with young people who hear such things and end up following in their incarcerated loved one’s footsteps. 

She also understands the importance of having a creative outlet. During her teenage years, Wren turned to writing for creative release — a passion she pursues today. The written word gave her a framework through which to express her complicated emotions, and today serves as the inspiration for a fledging art program. The goal: to get kids of all ages to create an original work of art that they can send to their loved ones in the prison system.

“I hope they find self-acceptance,” she says when asked about the goal of Ry’s Up Coloring for the Incarcerated. “We’re not Mommy or Daddy or aunts or uncles or what teacher says. I want that self-acceptance: ‘I am me. This is what I feel and what I think and it’s OK to feel what I feel and think what I think.’”

The program kicked off in January and is now offered from 2 to 4 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month at The Citadel mall’s Imagination Celebration iSpace, 750 Citadel Drive East.

There is no cost to participate and all the materials, from the crayons and colored pencils to the paper and envelopes, are donated. Children don’t even have to talk if they don’t feel like it. All they need to do is come in, sit down and — if they want to — create. 

“Hopefully the children, with coloring, can get their emotions out too, whatever they are,” Wren says. “If they’re sad, angry or happy, it’s OK. Get it out.”

That all rings true with Amberly Gallagher, a Colorado Springs licensed marriage and family therapist and behavioral health consultant. In addition to maintaining a private practice, Gallagher serves as a consultant for CPCD (Community Partnership for Child Development), which runs preschool, early Head Start and Head Start programming throughout the city. 

She praises Wren’s project, calling art and play therapies “super powerful” for patients of all ages. It’s especially empowering for young children with limited processing skills, Gallagher says. 

“Kids, particularly kids in a traumatized situation or from a traumatic background, don’t have feeling literacy,” she says. “They don’t have the brain structure to sit and talk about how they are feeling and how they are processing … so play is really their world and their words.” 

What comes out during that play, she says, “blows my mind.” 

“I think people think that, ‘OK, if Johnny has an incarcerated parent … he’s going to go into the playroom and play out visiting [that parent] in prison,’” Gallagher says. “While that’s true, he may play out the trauma in his life, I as a clinician always look for themes.” 

A child who needs to be nurtured, she explains, may create a scene of caregiving, such as cooking dinner or caring for a baby. Art therapy follows those same lines, Gallagher says. “Art really works on this theory that our body knows before our brain does.”

Think about it this way: According to Freudian psychology, our psyches are controlled by the id, the ego and the super-ego. The id is the primitive mind that acts on instinct, drives and hidden memories; the super-ego is our moral conscience; and the ego is that realistic part that walks the line between the other two. 

In traumatic situations, Gallagher says, the ego takes over. 

“The ego’s job is really to lock up all the stuff that we don’t want to look at,” she says. 

But expressive play, color, design, creation — art — circumnavigates the ego. 

“It allows [the trauma] to come out in an expressive way,” Gallagher says. “Any movement, any sort of non-directed art I think is always helpful. It’s also very helpful just in the therapeutic sense. … If you give a kid a bunch of art supplies and say, ‘Hey kid, you can create whatever you want,’ that’s kind of foraging into their world.” 

Let there be no doubt, it is traumatic for a child to have a loved one arrested. That’s according to multiple studies, including demographic research conducted in 2014 by Rutgers University Camden’s National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated. 

Parental incarceration is now recognized as an “adverse childhood experience,” according to the study, and is distinguished by its unique combination of trauma, shame and stigma. More than 2.7 million children, or roughly one in 28, in the U.S. had at least one parent behind bars when the study was completed, and about 10 million children had experienced parental incarceration at some point of in their lives. 

Having been one of them, Wren above all wanted to help that one-in-28 kid know they are not alone. 

“It’s just what all of us humans want,” Gallagher says. “We’re wired for connection and we’re wired to be understood. To put a child in an environment with other people, whether they’re talking about it, whether they’re creating around it, that child is going to be in an environment where, ‘I’m not alone. I’m connected.’” 


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