Studying The Transformative Nature of Creativity with Jennie Lobato of drawchange

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Photos courtesy of drawchange

In 2008, when Jennie Lobato, the founder and creator-in-chief behind Atlanta’s drawchange, was — seemingly — at the beginning of a successful career, she came to a startling realization. “I was working in corporate America, and feeling like I was out of touch with my creative side,” she said. “I started to think about what my passions in life were: art, children, and helping people. So I combined those three, and I dove right in.”

Less than a year later, her passions culminated in drawchange, a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that serves homeless children through the use of art. “I created drawchange from a personal experience of how much the arts helped me as a child and teenager,” she said. “Growing up, I always resorted to the arts to help me make sense of what was going on the world.” A first-generation American who grew up in a household that celebrated her Uruguayan heritage, Lobato found that the world outside was less receptive to her culture. “I grew up in the inner city, in Jersey City, in an  Uruguayan household, and had the internal struggle of the dichotomy of a Latin American household, but the second I stepped out in the street, I had to be very rough. I had to have street smarts; anything you can do to suppress who you really are.”

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Faced with gang violence and forced to hide her heritage, Lobato turned to fine art to cope with and understand the violence and fear that surrounded her. Years later, fine art once again offered healing and hope, but not only for her. “drawchange started as art for art’s sake: let’s just create something because you want to create. I was working with the homeless population in Atlanta and New York, and I quickly realized how there’s so much more depth that we can give [homeless children] through the use of art therapy,” she said. “I read research papers on how homelessness in the United States is a cycle, and I got to thinking that if it’s a cycle, that means children are growing up thinking they cannot emerge from this cycle of poverty. It’s something they buy into, because they’ve been homeless their whole lives. Their parents have been homeless, their grandparents have been homeless, and they don’t even imagine that there’s a way out of this cycle.”

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So she started from the ground up, employing art and behavioral therapists to develop an environment and a curriculum to teach and encourage homeless children. “We create a therapeutic environment,” she said. “We start off each of our sessions with a breathing exercise, to get them focused, then we do an imagination session, which can be looked at as a meditation. It’s always based around empowerment: think about a time or a day in your life, your best day ever. It can be something that already happened or something in your imagination. Think about how you felt on that day. Think about who you were with and what you were wearing. It’s really to get them in that space of forgetting for an hour anything else that’s going on and really getting them present and focused on their art and hanging out with their friends.

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“We go to the shelters with lots of volunteers,” she continued. “They help them focus and with their problems, but they're more there to help them with their self-esteem and pay attention to them, because, from my experience, a lot of homeless children and teens want attention, because they’re not getting it, since mom and dad are — understandably — more worried about getting a roof over their heads and food in their bellies than they are about the everyday emotional needs of a child at that moment.”

With a curriculum based around seven core competencies (creativity, collaboration, imagination, dream building, self-esteem, empowerment, and stress relief), Lobato sees the immediate impact the hour-long sessions have on her students. “You’ll see a child come to us feeling resentful, resigned, or confused, because all the sudden they’re in this homeless shelter and they don’t know what’s going on, for angry and scared, because they don't trust anyone because last night they were sleeping under a bridge. In just an hour of our program, you see this emotion of, “Hey, I got this. I haven’t completely forgotten that I want to be a doctor or whatever it is when I grow up. I didn’t realize that I can still do whatever, be something,” and this overall feeling of wellbeing that they leave with. To me — and research also shows it — that’s the first step toward achieving anything. If you can imagine it, you’re that much closer to achieving it.”

Well acquainted with believing — and accomplishing — seemingly impossible tasks, Lobato is determined to help others overcome their own hardships. “I was definitely not homeless, but I felt I had to be someone else to survive,” she said. “These children are growing up in the exact same aspect. They’re going to public school and having to hide that they’re homeless.” In her group sessions, however, there’s no hiding “I think that’s a lot of my connection to these children, because they’re struggling inside, some of them for very different reasons. There’s something that needs to be expressed through the use of our projects, and we’re really helping them express that. I don’t like to call it art therapy, because art therapy is clinical, and we’re not clinical. We’re not asking them to draw a house to find out if they’re being sexually abused. We’re asking them to draw a house with all the details: where they’re going to live, who’s going to live in that house with them, what color it’s going to be. We’re having them dream about that house.”

“Our program is intended to remind them that there’s still hope, that they can emerge from this and do whatever they want to do in life,” Lobato finished. “They definitely leave our program with a sense of hope and encouragement, higher self-esteem, or a tool to help them navigate both their current situation, and, once they leave the homeless shelter, navigate life.”

With the launch of drawchange’s holiday campaign, Lobato and her team are turning to the community of dreamers, doers, and givers as they continue to strive toward their goal to be present wherever there is a child that could benefit from a moment of creativity. “It’s a pretty lofty goal,” she admits, but she’s hopeful. “As long as there are impoverished children in the world, we have a job to do. That’s the way I see it.”

With your donation of only $25 to drawchange, you’ll not only help spread drawchange to as many children in need as possible, but receive a keepsake ornament by Christmas with donations made by December 18th. Simply click here to make a $25 donation, then fill out the “special instructions” box with your name and mailing address to receive a special Inspire Magic Holiday ornament.

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