Children & Teens Day: Spreading Love to PALS on Valentine’s Day

Since 2012, The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter has been sponsoring a special “Children and Teens Day” event for children who are living with or love a PALS, and for children who are already bereaved. Our first Kids Day, as we lovingly call it, was at a restaurant in the city that was truly out of this world – Mars 2112! There, kids ages 8 to 18 had fun in the restaurant’s arcade, ate a spectacular meal – and decorated “memory boxes” using their own memorabilia or craft materials provided by the Chapter. This was the first of many art-therapy oriented Kids Days.

Now divided into two age groups (6 to 11 and 12 to 18), groups have brought family photos to the Chapter office to make beautiful scrapbooks or snow globes, painted a tea set at a pottery studio, and drawn a mandala (signifying the circle of life). Most recently, the group made Valentine’s Cards and decorated frames for their loved ones, as pictured above. Art is therapeutic, and always something kids enjoy.

We have found that working with art can help children get more in touch with their thoughts and feelings about their lives with ALS, even if they don’t want to talk openly with other kids or staff members who are always present. However, sometimes they do, and we offer them a safe space to talk with each other. At our most recent event, a nine-year-old girl told us she comes to our groups to have some fun and asked if we invited kids because their parents are sick. At another, a boy slightly older quietly told a staff member that his dad had ALS. In these quiet ways, children can express themselves, feeling understood by other kids going through a similar experience. Their privacy is respected: parents can join for our traditional pizza lunch and ice cream sundae bar, and stay to chat with one another privately, while the kids do their artwork.

Stay tuned for our upcoming events including a day for bereaved children and teens ages 12-18 and a barbeque style lunch and day of games this summer.

For more information on Children and Teens Day, contact Sue Zimmerman at 212-720-3050 or zimmerman@als-ny.org.

Art Therapy Helps Kids Cope at The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter's Childrens Day

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Pictured: Two drawings made by children who attended the art therapy session at the Childrens Day event.

When children have a family member who has been diagnosed with ALS, it’s often hard for them to express how they’re feeling. This past December, The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter hosted a special day that included an art therapy program to help the children in our area who have family members living with ALS to express their emotions and to connect with other kids who are coping with the same situation

This is not the first time the Chapter has run a Children’s Day activity. Through the generous support of Chapter Board Member Marilyn Safenowitz, we have held five events over the past three years. However, according to Susan (Sue) Zimmerman, LCSW, Patient Services Coordinator, for the Greater New York Chapter who heads the Childrens and Teens program, this was the first time a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist participated in the program to help work with the children. Along with sharing feelings about having a family member with ALS, the event also built in a bit of fun for the kids, whose ages ranged from 8 to 18-years-old, including a pizza lunch, a make-your-own ice cream sundae bar for dessert, and a holiday goodie bag to take home.

Sue wanted to add art therapy to the program to see how children might express themselves through art.

“I’m a trained therapist, but not in art therapy and we wanted this to be a truly therapy-oriented event,” she said.

Sue and social work intern, Jenny Lundeen, called in Art Therapist Erika Mayer, LCAT, RYT to help them with the group. Erika holds a Masters degree in Creative Arts Therapy and Counseling from The College of New Rochelle.

One of the challenges when working with children, according to Erika, is that they often do not know how to express their emotions and art is a great way for them to do that. The artwork that they create can open a door to explore feelings that are not often verbalized.

“As an art therapist, the use of metaphor plays an important role,” Erika said. “At times, individuals will create an image and connect to an emotion that they did not realize they were experiencing.”

Erika asked the kids to close their eyes and imagine general things they did at home like eating breakfast or having friends over. She then asked them to think about various emotions they feel throughout the day. To help them think about a wide range of emotions, while their eyes were closed Erika read a list of possible feelings the kids might experience. She then asked the children to draw one or more of the feelings they connected with.

“Once they finished drawing about the feelings they connected with, we had a group discussion,” Erika said.

The session lasted a little over an hour, as Erika encouraged the kids to talk about their images. She said that strong emotions came out in their drawings such as, confusion, sadness, loneliness, and love. Erika felt that the kids were all “very grown up for their ages, had great insight, and supported one another.”

Sue, Jenny and Erika agreed that the group was a success. Art became a great way to explore emotions without overwhelming the kids when they might not understand how they are feeling themselves.

“Using art as a tool in therapy creates a less invasive environment,” she said. “Children are able to express themselves without speaking. A goal in art therapy is to have kids or adults speak about their images and how they relate to them, but if someone does not want to talk about their art, it’s OK. Creating an image is the first step to connecting to deeper feelings and emotions.”

Erika has also visited the ALS Support Group in Hudson Valley to work with adult PALS and caregivers.

If you’d like more information about this program, contact Sue Zimmerman, LCSW, at The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter at (212) 720-3050 or zimmerman@als-ny.org.

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