NPR

Art Therapy Nonprofit Improvises In New Economy

Mario Barela stands next to the supplies he uses for his percussion class. He teaches the fundamentals of drumming to children in a Phoenix domestic violence shelter. (NPR)

Correction: The first name of Jessica Flowers, the program manager of Free Arts of Arizona, was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Part of a monthlong series

Every Monday, Mario Barela heads to a domestic violence shelter on the west side of Phoenix to teach children of abused women how to drum. Their instruments are old paint buckets. They circle up in the cafeteria of the shelter as Barela leads.

(For the safety of families residing there, NPR can't name or share the location of the unmarked shelter or disclose the names of any of the children there.)

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Most of the 20 or so children in the class come from families in distress. One parent, usually their mother, is fleeing an abusive partner. Most of these families are poor. Outside the class, kids who are too young to participate peer through the windows of the small shelter cafeteria. A very pregnant program manager from Free Arts of Arizona sits on the sidelines, tapping her baby bump to the rhythm.

Her name is Jessica Flowers. She says that arts therapy like this can work wonders for abused children. "It's awesome. I think the joy that these kids get to experience in this one hour with Barela is unparalleled by anything else they get to do," Flowers says.

And for children dealing with serious problems in their families, Flowers says banging on paint buckets is one of the better ways to cope. "Kids that have been through trauma so often turn to those negative things like drinking and drugs and self-mutilation," she says. "This is such a great way to be able to get those emotions out in a healthy, positive situation."

But for all the good these classes do, programs like Barela's Buckets of Fun are in danger. Like nonprofits all over America, Free Arts has been in a financial crunch for some time now.

"We have lost half of our government funding," says Barbara Fenster, executive director of Free Arts. "We've lost just about a third of our staff."

Besides layoffs and budget cuts, Fenster says, Free Arts had to stop hiring artists. And now, when businesses want to send volunteers to Free Arts, the nonprofit doesn't just say come on down — it requires a cash donation from those businesses as well.

Even though people continue to give to Free Arts, the poor economy keeps donations down. "When they last year gave us ... $500, this year they're giving us $400," Fenster says. "Or a foundation that gave us $10,000 is giving us $7,500."

That, along with cuts in government contracts and less support from philanthropic groups, can hurt. "Add the loss of 5 percent in government funding and the loss of 2 percent in foundation funding and ... the loss of 10 percent of individual giving, and now you're starting to talk about a significant decrease in your bottom line," Fenster says.

But the people who run Free Arts say they aren't giving up. They've matched cuts in staff and funding with increases in volunteers, many of whom are laid off and seeking new ways to fill their time.

As the drum class winds down, none of these issues are on the kids' minds. They just want to know if Barela will be back next week. He says he will. The program isn't just for the kids. It helps him, too.

"Me, myself, I'm a musician, business owner, artist," he says. "They're helping me to express and share my art, and I'm able to get funds through them, which puts food on my table. I appreciate that."

At the end of the class, Barela takes out a big plastic trash can. He's teaching the kids how to improvise. He keeps the beat; they make up their own over his. Free Arts is doing the same, improvising new methods of survival to keep the art it gives alive. For Barela, it's worth it. "Like their slogan says, man, art heals. I believe it."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The NPR series Hard Times is on the road this month, visiting places and people feeling the pinch in the tough economy. For many charities and nonprofits, and the people they help hard times are getting harder.

NPR's Sam Sanders visited a group called Free Arts of Arizona, and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: It's a clear, mild fall night in Phoenix. In a domestic violence shelter on the west side of town, Mario Barela is teaching children of abused women how to drum.

MARIO BARELA: OK, you guys ready? I start, you guys follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SANDERS: Most of the 20 or so children in the class come from families in distress. One parent, usually their mother, is fleeing an abusive partner. Most of these families are poor.

I was allowed to sit in on the drum class, called Buckets of Fun, but I can't name or share the location of the unmarked shelter. I also can't disclose the names of any of the children here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SANDERS: There are kids outside the class who are too young to participate, peering through the windows of the small shelter cafeteria. A very pregnant program manager from Free Arts sits on the sidelines, tapping her baby bump to the rhythm.

Her name is Jennifer Flowers. She says that arts therapy like this can work wonders for abused children.

JENNIFER FLOWERS: It's awesome. I think the joy that these kids get to experience in this one hour with Mario is unparalleled by anything else that they get to do.

SANDERS: And for children dealing with serious problems in their families, Flowers says banging on paint buckets is one of the better ways to cope.

FLOWERS: Because kids that have been through trauma so often turn to those negative things, like drinking and drugs and self-mutilation. This is such a great way to be able to get those emotions out in a healthy, positive situation.

SANDERS: But for all the good these classes do, programs like Barela's are in danger. Like nonprofits all over America, Free Arts has been in a financial crunch for some time now.

BARBARA FENSTER: We have lost half of our government funding. We've lost just about a third of our staff.

SANDERS: Barbara Fenster is the executive director of Free Arts of Arizona. Besides layoffs and budget cuts, Fenster says Free Arts had to stop hiring artists. And now, when businesses want to send volunteers to Free Arts, the nonprofit doesn't just say come on down - they require a cash donation from those businesses as well.

Even though people continue to give to Free Arts, the poor economy keeps donations down.

FENSTER: When they last year gave us at $500, this year they're giving us $400. Or a foundation that gave us $10,000 is giving us $7,500.

SANDERS: That, matched with cuts in government contracts and less support from philanthropic groups, can hurt:

FENSTER: You add the loss of 5 percent in government funding and the loss of 2 percent in foundation funding, and the loss of, you know, whatever it is - the loss of 10 percent of individual giving, and now you're starting to talk about a significant decrease in your bottom-line.

SANDERS: But Free Arts says they aren't giving up. They've matched cuts in staff and funding with increases in volunteers, many who are laid off and seeking new ways to fill their time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

SANDERS: As the class winds down, none of these issues are on the kids' minds. They just want to know if Mario Barela will be back next week.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Are you going to do this every single Monday?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah, every single Monday.

SANDERS: Barela says he will. The program isn't just for the kids. It helps him, too.

BARELA: I mean, me myself, I'm a musician, business owner, artist. I mean, they're helping me to express and share my art, my art form. And I'm able to get funds through them, you know, which I mean, puts food on my table. I appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SANDERS: At the end of the class, Barela takes out a big plastic trash can. He's teaching the kids how to improvise. He keeps the beat; they make up their, own over his.

BARELA: Two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SANDERS: Free Arts is doing the same, improvising new methods of survival to keep the art they give alive. For Barela, it's worth it:

BARELA: Like their slogan says: Art heals. Man, I believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SANDERS: Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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