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Heart to Art program helps people articulate their loss

In this Following Up feature we return to Hospice Wellington where they are using their art therapy program to give 1,000 people in the community an opportunity to express their experiences during the pandemic

Helping people process grief and loss is a primary focus for the Art Therapy program at Hospice Wellington and they are extending the reach of the program free of charge to 1,000 people over the next 10 weeks.

“This is a brand new program,” said Pat Stuart executive director of Hospice Wellington. “We’ve never done anything like this before. Most of the programs we’ve done pre-COVID involved people coming in and we’d offer grief support. So, this is something very different.”

The Heart to Art program is, essentially, Hospice Wellington’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID came along we had our programs all lined up and we had to change everything as many people have had to,” said Stuart. “I think a lot of people are feeling a sense of aloneness right now. Their routines have been disturbed and altered and our connections with each other have really been challenged as we distance to keep others safe.”

Starting Monday, May 11, they will start distributing free art kits to 100 people a week.

“Our idea is to reach out to 1,000 people in the next 10 weeks,” said Stuart. “It will start Monday and they just sign up online and we made preparations for 10 different packages that will be delivered to people’s homes with full instructions on how to do the project.”

Hospice Wellington launched its Art Therapy Program in 2013 to help residents and their loved ones “facing end-of-life experiences and bereavement”.

“A lot of people connect us with dying but we are very much here for people that are living too,” said Stuart. “For some people it is hard to articulate their feelings but sometimes when you can write or draw or make something your feelings can come out better that way.”

Art therapist Nicole Fantin has developed many creative initiatives for the Art Therapy program at Hospice Wellington and has seen the value of artistic expression for people grieving the death of a loved one or experiencing other forms of loss.

“Using art to focus on meaning, gratitude and connection to what we are trying to express has been shown to be an effective way to process and communicate,” said Fantin. “I am inspired by our community to humbly offer what I can to help foster meaning-making and connection during a time that requires us to find courage and endurance in new ways.”

Fantin has designed the Heart to Art program to reach as many people as possible.

“We are really excited that it can reach 1,000 connections and hopefully 1,000 more people will hear about it,” said Stuart. “We wanted to do something for our community. We hold value and belief in our community story and the uniqueness and the stories of people who live here. Our logo is ‘Your story matters'.”

The kits will be distributed to the first 100 people who sign up each week and you can sign up as many times as you want over the 10 weeks.

“It comes with scissors and everything you will need to do that project,” said Stuart. “There is no charge just like there is no charge for any of our services. Go to our website and there will be a link there to sign up.”

Instructions for each of the 10 separate types of projects will be included with the kits.

“You can do this project on your own,” said Stuart. “You can do it with family, whoever you want to do it with. You can take some pictures and send them into us and we will put them on our website and social media. If you don’t want to send us a picture you don’t have to. It is totally up to you.”

The kits have been prepared under sterile conditions and everybody handling them will be wearing personal protection equipment.

“Our volunteers will pick them up outside our door,” said Stuart. “They will have gloves and masks on when they deliver. They will ring the bell, leave the package and walk away. So, there is no risk of COVID being spread.”

Stuart said they can afford to provide the program for free because of the generosity of people in the community who have donated money and time to Hospice Wellington.

The pandemic has forced them to send all of their 186 volunteers home as well as 50 per cent of the staff. Family visitation has been cut back to one dedicated visitor per resident.

“We’re used to being a place where you are welcomed and your family is welcomed and it is just not like that anymore,” said Stuart. “It’s very tough and it is tough on the staff to see this.”

Launching the Heart to Art program is one way to show their gratitude for all the support they have received from the community

“They have been delivering masks and gloves,” said Stuart. “Neighbours have dropped stuff off and local restaurants have brought food in for the staff and the families that are here. They have bought us iPads so that families that are here can connect with each other. We have a little rock garden outside that people have come and put rocks there.”

Stuart believes people will see the value of the Heart to Art program if they get involved.

“I think we are all missing something in our lives and it’s not necessarily related to a death but rather just missing our routines and the people we are used to being with,” she said. “I think it is at a time when people have time to reflect on this and think, ‘What’s this is all about? How do I really feel?’

Fantin believes that expressing are losses will help us find common cause.

“I hope this simple act of creativity in our community will give focus to our intentions, illuminate our motivations, and illustrate our common need for connection,” said Fantin. “In so many ways, while we might be standing still, we may yet find room to grow.”