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ARTreach: Angels supporting health education

by Ella Hearrean

Dee Oelfke warmly greets familiar faces as they stream into Christ Clinic. “This is the most we’ve ever had at an event,” the educational coordinator says. Fifty people crowd into the nonprofit clinic, which has served the acute and chronic care needs of more than 7,000 patients since its establishment in Katy in 2000.

All of the clinic’s patients are either uninsured or in need of government assistance. Families are here for “Health During the Holidays,” one in a series of free workshops that address diabetes awareness and nutrition through the arts.

When Oelfke wants to reach the community, she looks for inspiration from ARTreach, a nonprofit organization that is celebrating its 10th anniversary of partnering with social service agencies to provide art-related programs to the underprivileged and underserved. “ARTreach is very innovative. They’ve given us a number of ways to combine nutrition with art,” says Oelfke.

In one program, patients designed beautiful “culinary cards” with creative recipes for diabetic patients. In another, patients used silk screening to decorate grocery tote bags with images of foods recommended for controlling diabetes. And Oelfke remembers her personal favorite: a project coined “souper bowls.” “The crowd really connected with shaping bowls out of pottery and tasting healthy soup recipes,” she said.

For this workshop, parents and their children position themselves elbow-to-elbow around a long table stocked with clay and tools to create angel-shaped Christmas ornaments. ARTreach Director Terri Bieber and her longtime friend, Tess Thornton of Ceramics by Tess, demonstrate using cookie cutters, straws, and stencils to carve designs into the angels, which will be presented to the clinic’s volunteers later in the month.

Bieber explains the link between art and nutrition for underprivileged families. “Families that can’t afford health insurance are usually not able to afford art classes either, so they’re excited to sign up for free workshops. They make amazing art and we combine that experience with conversations about healthy eating and the impact it can make on our bodies.”

After they add final touches to the angels, the families head to a table loaded with healthy holiday alternatives such as chicken and veggie kabobs, baked chips with black bean dip, pumpkin mousse, and water. While they feast, a representative from the Houston Food Bank presents ways to maintain good nutritional habits during the holidays. When one girl shyly says that her favorite part of a holiday meal is the pie crust, Oelfke encourages her to taste the mousse, gently explaining that children may need to make changes in their diet to support their parents’ health.

Oelfke says the preventive measures, which cost only $90 in funds from grants and donors, build new health and art habits that have far-reaching implications. “Art is an incentive to bring families together, to involve children and spouses when mom or dad has a chronic illness. They bond while learning together how to develop healthy habits, which in turn prevent the expenses of emergency room visits, testing, treatments, and medications that would fall on the community,” she says. The ARTreach workshops at Christ Clinic are made possible in part by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Maria Espinosa attests to the benefits of the workshops. She has been a patient of Christ Clinic since being diagnosed with prediabetes seven years ago and says, “Everything has changed in my diet. I’ve reduced my medications and have better stamina. The workshops teach me a lot, like how to cook healthily without feeling deprived.”

Several hours later, the ARTreach volunteers begin to chatter about the successful evening while they collect their supplies. Vonda Drees, a new volunteer, says ARTreach has taught her a lot as well, especially the art of accompaniment. “At first it was hard not to take over. I learned that I can’t do the art for others, but I can empower them. And they do way better than I expect -- I often say, ‘I would’ve never thought of that!’” She remembers the first time she heard about ARTreach. “I saw blurbs and flyers about it everywhere. After the 17th reference, I figured it was time to check it out,” Drees says with a laugh. “Once I took the first step, I was taken. ARTreach is a beautiful place to be.”

Through its partnership with Christ Clinic, the art outreach organization has educated over 200 underprivileged patients, has motivated their family members, and has saved countless health care tax dollars for the community. Bieber works persistently to remind the public of the importance of ARTreach, which relies on donations and grants from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies.

How can you help?
“We see arts funding has decreased because people are focused on immediate needs — you can help by contacting your state representative. We want our legislators to understand that art is critical and relevant in preventative health care through education,” she says. “ARTreach programs supporting health and wellness qualify for state funding available from the Texas Commission on the Arts. These are dollars well spent now on arts education to save tax payers the higher dollars spent on expensive healthcare in the future. We’re also looking for volunteers so we can keep changing families’ lives and support our local community and our state.”

At the end of the evening, Espinosa and her 7 year-old daughter, Stephanie, hug Oelfke goodbye, gather recipe cards, and pluck a small bag of donated hygiene products from a basket on their way out. Espinosa smiles and says, “It was a good social event. We’re blessed to have this place.”

To donate to or volunteer for ARTreach, go to www.artreachonline.org <
http://www.artreachonline.org> .
To learn more about Christ Clinic in Katy visit www.christclinickaty.org <
http://www.christclinickaty.org>

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based writer and editor.

ARTreach is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides mentoring and art-related programs to a growing population of children at risk, children and adults with special needs, the elderly and others in need.