Using art as therapy

Woman creates programs for those in need in memory of son during pandemic

Terri DiGennaro, chairwoman and founder of HELMS Mahoning Valley, a nonprofit that promotes art and therapeutic art programs, shows off banners made by the clients served by organizations that partner with HELMS to bring art programs into their facilities.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has limited the amount of contact a program offering art services to organizations that serve vulnerable clients can have, the founder of the HELMS Mahoning Valley still is finding ways to bring art into their lives.

HELMS was founded by Terri DeGennaro to bring art programs and art therapy to people in need — people with mental health issues, living in domestic violence shelters or homeless shelters, and those with developmental disabilities. She founded it in memory of her son, Ryan Giambattista, an artist who died in an accident in Struthers at 23.

When the pandemic struck, DeGennaro was in the process of expanding the program, working with a student grant writer and an art-therapy intern to strengthen the foundation’s impact.

“It was great, and then, boom, everything was shut down. Everyone had to stay home; all of a sudden it was all gone. We lost those connections,” DeGennaro said.

DeGennaro couldn’t sit still for long, though.

Out of her office and workroom, she started gathering art supplies, “cleaning out” dollar stores for canvas panels, sketch books and other supplies for projects she created.

She builds project ideas, collects the supplies and then delivers it to the 13 programs she works with to serve 262 clients.

“People need to express themselves, to use their creativity,” DeGennaro said.

Some of the clients have differing abilities, so DeGennaro tries to build wiggle room into the projects so that they can be adapted to different skills and medium preferences. Sometimes she makes instructional videos if the craft is a little more tricky.

She is working on her 22nd week of projects, which have included personalizing journals and pens, creating a time capsule, making a dreamcatcher, making coffee filter butterflies and flowers, creating pine-cone bird feeders, putting together paper bag books and paper mat weaving. The groups recently finished decorating banners representing the organizations that serve them, which includes programs run by Compass Family and Community Services, Meridian Healthcare, YWCA Transitional Housing, the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, Casa Madre and Neil Kennedy Recovery Centers. The foundation also partnered with Alta Behavioral Healthcare to sponsor art projects.

“It is a way of bringing people together, it gives them something to look forward to, and something to keep or give away. Some of the clients don’t have the means to buy supplies, so I like to do projects that leave them with something to work with after the project is over, like the journals and sketchbooks,” DeGennaro said.

This week, the groups are making stress balls from balloons and flour.

DeGennaro consults with art therapists to make the projects, but she is eager to get back to programs that focus on art therapy and would like to have an art therapist to contract out.

She said she would like to get art therapy programming into schools and normalize the therapy. She is planning an art competition as a fundraiser in the future.


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