By Tessa Pszonak and Jess Trainor

We all know the pandemic has negatively affected people’s mental health and created new barriers for those already suffering from mental illness. For April’s spotlight, we wanted to highlight the work of those who are using the arts to help alleviate general and mental health challenges within the community, including our veterans and active duty military personnel.

The Healing Arts Program at Oishei Children’s Hospital provides pediatric patients and families with services through an emotional, mental, and physical healing experience. They understand the importance and impact art has on someone’s health and are implementing it wherever they can at Oishei Children’s Hospital. Corinne McCarthy, the Coordinator of the Healing Arts Program, emphasizes the importance of making a space for art within the hospital.  

“Our goal is to always fill our walls with love. That is what I feel like all our art pieces truly portray is love,” McCarthy said. She hopes that families can find peace during their hospital stay as they pass by the artwork.

Healing Arts Program – Trendy Milk by Joe Cascio

There are twelve floors filled with a variety of different art pieces such as acrylic and watercolor paintings, photographs, and even sculptures. They are designed by twelve signature artists who are connected to Buffalo. Each floor also has its own theme: on level two, the theme is the “City of Good Neighbors” with photographs of and around Buffalo. The eighth level is themed “Animals” and is filled with photos from the Buffalo Zoo, Knox Farm, and the Niagara Falls Aquarium. 

One day while they were installing the artwork on the second floor, McCarthy remembers a little girl passing by on her way to an appointment. She was mesmerized by the photographs staring in amazement at places she knew and recognized, including Canalside and Delaware Park. “It truly spoke to me and how important art is within the hospital. That little girl could have been so scared going to her appointment but I felt like when she saw those photographs she forgot all about it. She was able to really look at those photographs and find a glimpse of happiness,” McCarthy mentioned. 

Arts-based programming is another way the hospital is incorporating art with their patients. One group called “Stone’s Buddies” works with children who have chronic illness and medical complexities. Utilizing both a musician-in-residence and artist-in-residence, they strive to teach the patients and their families coping strategies to better deal with the challenges they face both at the hospital and at home. This program has been able to continue virtually throughout the pandemic.

They are currently looking into adding more rotating art display spaces in other areas of the hospital. For more information about the program, you can visit their website here.

While the Healing Arts Program at Oishei’s Children’s Hospital provides pediatric patients and families an emotional, mental, and physical healing experience through artwork, Sara Rogers, a music therapist and musician, is connecting with people through music. 

Sara Rogers – Photographed by Alana Adetola Arts Photography LLC

At Our Lady Victory Human Services, Rogers works with twelve to eighteen year olds in the residential treatment facility who have had suicidal ideation. She uses music to develop a variety of non-musical skills, such as prosocial behaviors in order to build self-concept, how to engage in healthy and appropriate conversations, and  how to learn positive peer interactions. “It is really cool to help these kids develop their own personal relationship with music and be able to use it as part of their healing and growth process,” Rogers said. 

Rogers also brings her passion for music therapy right into the community. “Music with Miss Sara” works with organizations such as Gigi’s Playhouse Buffalo, The Collaborative Community Mission, Explore & More’s Au-Some Evenings, and Sensational Fun, Inc. to provide music enrichment groups and connect with kids. 

During her classes, Rogers will often start with a check-in either through conversation or with music. From all of her classes and sessions making a connection is vital to her work. “Without connection, we would not see what we do without any of those pieces,” Rogers mentions. 

She has been able to help kids memorize their address and even their parent’s names by using music as their motivator to remember the details. She also has been able to witness older adults who could not remember what they had for breakfast but instead sing through an entire song in the middle of music therapy. 

Rogers offers free music therapy consultations to discuss how her work may help you or a loved one. “Anybody can benefit from what music therapy can offer especially at a time like this that has been very difficult for many of us to work through our emotions,” Rogers said. She works with anyone from babies to older adults. For more information about her services and upcoming classes, you can check out her website here.  

In a similar manner, Ms. Sondra hosts a free weekly Musical Meditation program for people ages 2 to 92 in coordination with Catholic Health.  

After retiring from her 33-year position as a music teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools, Ms. Sondra had the honor of being the only woman invited to study with Hindi masters at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal. While there, she became a devotee and promised to share their ways of meditation with the Western world. After returning state-side, she continued her work in the arts, adding elements of meditation, teaching for various organizations and schools, including the Blossom Garden Friends School, Lake Shore, Angola, Silver Creek, and El Buen Amigo.  

Once COVID hit, her in-person work was gone. Not having access to the internet at home, she found a unique way to continue providing her classes and lessons – by phone.

Musical Meditation feature in Angola Pennysaver

Her 30-minute Musical Meditation sessions by phone center around a weekly theme and encourage participants to focus on calmness, balance, peace, and joy.  “My process is inspired by a Hindi saying that translates to ‘May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my words, thoughts, and actions contribute to the happiness and freedom of all,’” said Ms. Sondra.

Throughout the pandemic, Ms. Sondra also taught private piano lessons by phone and allowed her students to pay in whatever means they were able, including rolls of toilet paper and canned food. She is just starting to teach in person art, voice, and piano lessons out of her home in Derby again as long as the students are fully vaccinated. You can learn more about her program by watching WKBW’s feature with Mike Randall or by calling 716-947-5092 during business hours.

One community that could greatly benefit from mental health programs such as these is the veteran and active duty military community. 

Michael Falk, a Navy veteran, knows first hand the importance of having creative expression in his years post service. After leaving the military, he discovered that drawing was an effective outlet to help him deal with the difficulties of life post-combat. This led Falk to pursue a career in the creative industry, where he worked for organizations such as Mad Magazine, DC Comics, and Drawn from Valor.

Falk understood how difficult the transition back into civilian life was for so many veterans, and that many organizations are not equipped to deal with veterans who may be struggling with mental health issues, such as PTSD. He found that many veterans felt pigeonholed into certain types of jobs after leaving the military, such as skilled trades, engineering, transportation, criminal justice, and others. Most would not even consider a career in the creative industry as many felt “behind” in their experience and uncomfortable entering the field at an older age than the majority of people who enter the creative industry.

Inspired by these realizations, and his success in the animation field, Falk decided to create a foundation to create a pathway into a creative career for veterans who may be suffering from mental health issues, such as PTSD. His foundation, Rock or Something Animation, focuses on training programs, employment services, and networking opportunities. Their mission is to “create a supportive community for military veterans that fosters well-being and success by providing training, support services and employment assistance in the visual arts.” Falk’s future goals include hiring an art therapist and creating training programs that help companies understand veterans’ needs and work more effectively with them. You can learn more about his story and his work by visiting his website here.

Artwork from Vets AK program

At the Albright Knox, Karen Duval oversees Vets AK, a monthly program specifically for veterans and their family members. Duval believes that we generally don’t give enough time or support to mental health, and that it is a topic that on some level we can all relate. 

The program consists of a tour, and then an art making experience. This informal, lowkey experience is designed to decrease the chances of veterans feeling isolation and to encourage social interaction among veterans who may have shared life experiences. There is one session every month, the majority of which are for adults and some specifically for families. Duval believes that programs such as these are important for our community because “the experience of the creative community is therapeutic.” 

The program is currently being run virtually and is free for all military veterans to attend, you can find more information here

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please know there is support available for you. The individuals and organizations we featured above are only a handful of the opportunities available to our community. If none of these seem like a good fit, you can find some good resources at the links below to get you started. 

Buffalo & Erie County – Crisis Services
Niagara County – Crisis Services
Chautauqua County – Department of Mental Hygiene
Cattaraugus County – Department of Community Services
Allegany County – Mental Health Services
Veterans – Veteran Affairs Mental Health Services, Veterans One-Stop Center of WNY
Art Therapy – American Art Therapy Association
Music Therapy – American Music Therapy Association