Najma*, 12, participates in a HEART activity at an Alternative Learning Center for Syrian refugees in Iraq. Photo: Claire Thomas
HEART: Celebrating 10 Years
Seeing extensive research proving the power of art in learning and healing, Save the Children launched an arts-based psychosocial support program in 2012: Healing and Education through the Arts, or HEART.
Since then, HEART has grown and thrived, reaching over a million children in 30 countries in refugee camps, community centers, child-friendly spaces, schools and shelters. We are proud to celebrate HEART’s 10th anniversary and its tremendous impact. We’re deeply thankful to those who shared our vision to support children’s well-being through arts-based psychosocial support.
Sara Hommel, Save the Children’s Lead Advisor on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, shares insights on HEART and why it’s needed now more than ever. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with Sara.
What was the impetus and vision for HEART back in 2011-2012?
SH: We saw that there were simply not enough counselors, social workers, psychologists or other mental health professionals to provide emotional support to children living in very stressful contexts.
One way to address this issue immediately was by training the people who already work with children on a regular basis who are not mental health providers – teachers, child-friendly space facilitators, youth center administrators – to integrate psychosocial support into their regular interactions with children. And one of the best ways to do this is to use an arts-based approach that we call “expressive arts,” which uses different art modalities to help children to process and express their thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences through a creative process. It involves drawing, painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, book-making – many different art forms that also integrate local cultural arts traditions and activities.
Would you share a few examples of these stressful situations and how they affect children’s emotional well-being?
SH: Save the Children supports children and families affected by a number of stressful situations that we often refer to as “adversity.” Unfortunately, the need for psychosocial support is only growing as conflict, displacement, poverty and other conditions of adversity are on the rise across the globe. Stressful experiences can negatively impact children’s emotional well-being, as well as their physical health, development and learning – and the impact can last a lifetime. This can be mitigated through support at home, at school, and in the community. HEART provides such support, to help children to process and recover from stress, which in turn will improve their health, development and learning throughout their lives.
What insights can you share about the impact of HEART?
SH: HEART facilitators see HEART’s impact quite quickly. Something that we hear a lot from teachers is that it’s one of the first times that they feel like they are able to positively contribute to a child's emotional well-being.
Sometimes children aren't doing as well in an educational setting because they're stressed or worried or scared, and teachers don't know what to do to support them.
But when teachers see that there's a very simple, interactive and fun approach that can actually impact the child's well-being right at that moment and cumulatively over time, it’s something they become incredibly dedicated to doing. Children become more communicative, expressive, positive and hopeful. They become more understanding and supportive toward themselves and each other. They also become more engaged in learning and other classroom activities.
How would you sum up the key factors to HEART’s success and longevity?
SH: Its adaptability is key. The program is extremely flexible. For example, in 2017 we adapted HEART to support children with disabilities. And in response to the Covid 19 pandemic lockdowns, we created HEART at Home – a short pamphlet for parents and caregivers showing how to organize and facilitate a few expressive arts activities with children at home. We translated these pamphlets into multiple languages, and distributed them to families in several countries, along with arts supplies.
HEART looks slightly different in each country. It’s amazing to have that kind of flexibility to adjust and adapt – and to grow to meet new challenges. Once the program is up and running, it’s quite low cost and sustainable, so that’s another key factor in its success!
The other thing is that for many people, it's a very new and exciting approach to engaging and communicating with the people around them. The arts are fun and engaging and dynamic! That’s true for people of all ages, from a 5-year-old in preschool to a 10-year-old in a primary school classroom to a 17-year-old in a youth center to a 30-year-old parent or caregiver in a support group. Through HEART, each person has the time and space to engage in art making and in sharing their feelings and experiences. It can really make a huge difference in how someone feels and how they are able to process stress.
What’s one story you can’t forget that exemplifies the impact of HEART?
Many stories stand out. One that immediately comes to mind is from a specific activity in which groups of children reflect on challenges they see in their local community and then write and perform a dramatic play to tell the story of the challenge and a solution.
During one of these activities in Malawi, kids chose “dropping out of school,” something that often happens when families can’t afford to pay school-related costs. The solution that the kids proposed was for others in the community to donate to families that need extra support, to make sure that kids can stay in school even if their family can’t afford it.
The HEART facilitators were so impressed, they organized an event for the children to perform the play for the whole village. The result was that the village leaders organized community members to collect donations to support children at risk. It is an amazing example of self-expression, communication, empathy and problem solving, and it led to a practical solution to a real-life problem. There are so many stories – this is just one, but a really memorable one.
CK: Finally, if you could speak directly to our HEART supporters, what would you like to say?
Thank you! HEART has many supporters, and we are so grateful for all they have done, and continue to do, to support the program.
HEART was developed and refined over many years and would not have happened without the flexible support that gave us time to develop, adjust, adapt and grow to meet so many challenges in so many places.
I’m a bit at a loss for words. Just thank you!
To learn how you can support HEART, please reach out to your Save the Children representative or [email protected]
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