Paint Possibilities event fosters hope and healing

Photo by Elana Knopp Participants use paint therapy to express themselves at a recent Kean event.
Photo by Elana Knopp
Participants use paint therapy to express themselves at a recent Kean event.

UNION, NJ — Kean University’s Occupational Therapy Community Cares Clinic hosted “Paint Possibilities,” an event modeled around the popular “paint night” events. Opportunity Project, a nonprofit clubhouse for adults with brain injuries located in Millburn, took part in the program.

Led by a Kean fine arts graduate student, participants were treated to an afternoon of creative expression, with Kean’s occupational therapy students and faculty members on hand to partner with participants and oversee the event.

Kellie Furland, an OT student at Kean, said that she, along with other students in the program, came up with the idea to run a paint night from a class assignment. “We were asked to develop a program that was occupational therapy- related and run it at the Kean University Occupational Therapy Community Cares Clinic,” said Furland, who was paired up with a participant in creating a work of art. “While brainstorming some ideas of programs we could run, one of my classmates suggested the adapted paint night. The paint night classes have become such a trend and we wanted to provide an opportunity for people to participate in this popular event by creating adaptations to the painting, the tools used, and the instruction,” she said.

Furland said that the most challenging part of the program was anticipating what adaptations the participants might need. “We created a registration form that asked some questions about adaptations that each person could select to attempt to overcome this challenge,” Furland said. “But the nature of working with participants with brain injury is that everyone is different and you have to be able to make adaptations on the spot.”

Medea Valdez, executive director of Kean’s School of Physician Assistant Studies, said that events like Painting Possibilities offers participants — who deal with unique challenges on a day-to-day basis — an opportunity to express themselves creatively. “Art therapy allows for patients to have non-verbal expressions about feelings — about what’s happening to them,” said Valdez. “We treat patients medically, but what about other things like depression? There are other things we need to consider after an injury. There is an emotional and psychological impact. There are cognitive issues. I think it’s very important for our students and our providers to have a bigger picture of how to help these patients.”

Michael Moran, of Opportunity Project, said that the organization was excited to take part in the event, which goes along with the mission of the organization. “Opportunity Project was one of the first clubhouse models in the state,” said Moran. “A clubhouse model means that our members have a voice. For members, by members. That’s our motto.”

Moran said that the organization has social workers, occupational therapists, vocational counselors, and nutritionists on staff to assist members, who are offered a range of activities such as yoga and cooking. “Once you’re a member, you are always a member. We’re a very tight-knit family,” said Moran.

Wilma Curry-Ward, who attended the paint night event, joined the organization about a month ago, two years after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “This is one of the few places that you’re not penalized for having a brain injury,” said Curry-Ward, who is currently going through vocational training and assisting at the organization. “I had to feel my way around when I first got there. You have to learn how to interact with people on a daily basis,” she said.

Valdez reiterates this point and said that a holistic approach to brain-injury patients is vital. “You have to treat the whole patients,” said Valdez. “The emotional and psychological aspects must be addressed. Patients can easily become depressed by these struggles and it is important to offer them opportunities to still engage in meaningful activities.

Valdez said that creative therapy is a great outlet for those recovering from brain injuries. “Art therapy is beneficial for patients who are left with deficits,” said Valdez. “Being able to express that helps. Having a way to express yourself is vital, and it’s also beneficial for fine motor skills. I think as medical providers we get focused on their medical outcomes and need to have a greater understanding of the impact their psychological and emotional needs have on their health outcomes. Communication between the various health professions from medicine, nursing and allied health is key to ensuring the patient is able to reach his or her full potential,” she said.

Geraldine Pagaoa, director of the OT clinic at Kean, said that events such Painting Possibilities helps participants gain confidence. “Being able to be with other people and increasing that social interaction gives them confidence,” said Pagaoa. “Many of these participants have lost friends, their jobs, their homes. Here they are engaging in a social activity and taking part in the community.”

Valdez explains that the program explores opportunities for students to interact with students from other disciplines in order to gain a full understanding of each member’s role on the healthcare team. “By integrating opportunities for students to work together with patients with brain injuries we can both enhance student education and promote a more holistic approach to patient care,” she said.

Furland said that participating in the event gave her a deep sense of pride. “We went in with this idea that we thought was great and it was exciting to see it actually turn out to be great,” Furland said. “It was so different than any event I have ever participated in before, and it was so cool to see the amazing turnout. The most rewarding part of the experience was to see how much the participants enjoyed themselves. At the end of the day that was what we really wanted. We wanted to give people a chance to try something new, create a piece of art, and to have fun,” she said.

Furland said that pairing up with participants was a unique experience. “It is like painting next to a friend, a friend who gets to try something new and be a part of something awesome,” Furland said of the event. “Together we were able to enjoy an experience and in the end, we were both proud. Just because something happened to them, doesn’t mean everything is different. It’s amazing to have provided these individuals with the opportunity to express themselves through a few colors and a brush, and give them a chance to try something and express themselves.”

Kean’s OT Community Cares Clinic provides service to individuals of the community, offering occupational therapy services for children and youth, rehabilitation and disability, mental health, productive aging, and health and wellness. Students enrolled in the OT program utilize the clinic for splinting, working with clients during seminar classes, and fieldwork placements.