The healing powers of art

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The healing powers of art

Outreach art education programme START hosted a unique workshop for special needs children. City Times chats to Mona Al Gurg, volunteer, who says she 'learned a lot from the kids'. FOR MONA Al Gurg, the smiling faces that greeted her around every corner of the art gallery were proof enough that a connection had been made.

By Mohamad Kadry (Staff Reporter)

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Published: Mon 14 Jul 2008, 12:01 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:10 PM

Working with specials needs children afflicted by autism and Down syndrome, Mona joined START's unique workshop as part of her school's internship programme, but gained far more than she could have expected.

An art and design major, the 21-year-old Emirati was on a mission to find a programme that both moved and inspired her. For Mona, the importance of reaching out to her community was more than just university credit; it was a duty she feels more young people need to get involved in.

'I learned a lot from the kids,' she says, 'I had never worked with children with autism and Down's syndrome.'

START is the outreach art education programme founded by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation charity. The aim is to establish arts programmes across the Middle East lead by artists for the wider education of children. The main focus of activity is to reach children in need but of course the definition of need shifts per country and here in the UAE the focus if very much on the government schools and children with special needs, including those who have been physically abused.

Director of START, Sonia Brewin, has always realised the healing power of art. 'You're giving them something completely outside their everyday existence, it's fun and they trust you. It's all about giving them pride,' she says.

Just as Mona's time with the UK based charity helped immensely, Sonia knows more needs to be done. She recalls the ease of recruiting volunteers in Europe versus the challenge of getting them involved in the Middle East, a problem she neither accepts nor understands.

'Mona is amazing,' she says, 'because here you have a young local girl giving up two months to stay with this programme, and that is extremely rare.'

For Mona, her time extending the power of paint to the special needs participants altered her perception on many things.

'You should never underestimate someone. When I saw their art it was amazing - they can do it - you just have to give them the opportunity,' she says.

'Once the kids get comfortable with the instructors, it starts to get much easier to teach them. They enjoy it, and every weekend I see them running through our doors excited.'

Splashed across the walls of the Jam Jar art gallery were more than just paint and collages. What the programme ultimately aims at is improving motor skills, hand eye coordination, speech, and most importantly, it gives the participants a chance to socialise in a safe and indiscriminate setting. For many of the special needs children, their only real handicap is not having a proper channel to express themselves through projects like art and photography.

'Some of them even began talking more as the workshop progressed,' Mona recalls.

But regionally, START defines special needs differently based on the demand of the specific country. 'The main focus of START in Lebanon, for example, are children who are refugees or have been traumatised by economic circumstances. The children that we work with in Lebanon are really a different mix of kids, some of them have just been abandoned by their parents who can't afford to bring them up - they're not even orphans,' Sonia claims.

With a new focus on disabilities like Down syndrome and autism, Mona will continue her studies at Zayed University, but with a tweaked future plan. Hoping to extend her passion for art with her experience with children, the nine weeks at START helped redefine importance and hope in her life.

'As much as I taught them, I think they taught me a lot more,' she says.

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