Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people. A Summit County nonprofit aims to combat that by teaching children self-esteem and resilience.
Calvin Davis smiles as Art-Kids Executive Director “Cowboy Ted” Hallisey hands him a colorful strand of yarn at PC Tots Monday morning.
Davis,who just turned 5, along with nine of his classmates, will use the yarn and a cut-up paper plate to make a dreamcatcher, one of the creative projects that Arts-Kids uses to help children build self-esteem and connect with each other.
Davis’ smile tells Hallisey that the child is engaged and having a positive experience, which is a big component of the nonprofit’s mission.
“Our biggest thing at Arts-Kids is that we want the kids to have fun, because when they are having fun, they have less chance of becoming desperate, overwhelmed and suicidal,” Hallisey said. “We’re trying to build resilience at this age so they don’t develop harmful patterns. We are helping them find their happy place through the arts.”
While suicide prevention may sound a little drastic for preschool-aged children, the second-leading cause of death for individuals ages 10 to 24 is suicide, according to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.
“Studies have shown that it’s too late to start taking preventive measures by 8, because kids by then have already established patterns of despair,” he said. “So we decided to start younger help these kids feel connected and engaged, because suicidal kids don’t feel connected or that they are making a difference in people’s lives.”
Arts-Kids was founded in 1999 by child psychiatrist Pat Drewry Sanger. It started as an after-school art therapy program that ran for eight weeks, said Hallisey, who was named executive director in 2018.
The nonprofit currently serves 700 children in Summit County, 700 kids in Salt Lake County and 500 kids in Utah County through its programs, according to Hallisey.
In the Park City area alone, Arts-Kids hosts sessions at South Summit School District, PC Tots, Holy Cross Ministries and Weilenmann School of Discovery, as well as Jeremy Ranch, Parley’s Park, Trailside and McPolin elementary schools.
Volunteers help Hallisey meet the demands, and there are 10 who help with the Summit County programs. A number of the volunteers are high school students who work through Youthlinc, a global humanitarian nonprofit, Hallisey said.
Since 2018, Arts-Kids has expanded its programming from visual art to include recreation, music and storytelling, he said.
“With all of the children we reach, we want to make sure we are giving them quality experiences,” he said.
The experiences teach the children life lessons and coping skills, Hallisey said.
“For example, today we’re making out dreamcatchers, which teach us that nothing is permanent or perfect,” he said on Monday. “We are telling the children that they can always restart and have a second chance.”
Cup stacking is another exercise Arts-Kids teaches, giving the students fine-motor skills.
“One of the things we found out with preschoolers is that they didn’t have hand capabilities,” he said. “They could push buttons on a cellphone, but they couldn’t take a lid off jars and things like that. So we are doing some dexterity exercises with their right and left hands.”
And, like the dreamcatchers, cup stacking reinforces that things aren’t permanent.
“When someone knocks the stack over, we tell them it’s OK to start again,” Hallisey said.
Susie Bond, director of PC Tots, a child care and early education nonprofit that serves more than 100 families, sees the importance of working with Arts-Kids.
“First of all, they come consistently, so the kids can always expect them to be here,” she said. “Secondly, Arts-Kids staff come prepared with an activity and story that will teach a moral or some kind of social lesson.”
Bond also likes that Arts-Kids is directed by a positive male role model.
“All the kids love having Cowboy Ted here, because we don’t have a lot of men on staff,” she said. “He speaks so kindly to everyone, and really listens to the kids. And that reinforces an important and positive male trait.”
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