Holiday Spirit

child uses handfuls of crayons to express themselves on paper during a CHAC arts school program. Photo Photo courtesy CHAC.

Posted Dec. 5, 2022

CHAC's 'BackTogether!' program empowers kids to express their emotions through art

by Malea Martin / Mountain View Voice

Elementary school requires structure to keep kids on track with their learning, but that rigidity can also prove challenging for young, curious minds – sometimes, kids need a space to express themselves on their own terms, said Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) therapist Marita Seulamo-Vargas.

That's exactly what CHAC seeks to offer with its arts-based, social-emotional learning program BackTogether! It launched in Mountain View elementary school classrooms earlier this year and aims to empower children to make art to help them transition back to school after summer break and deepen connections with their peers.

In a traditional art class students are directed to draw something specific, but "here we give them the supplies, and they can experiment," Seulamo-Vargas said. "When they have control, it builds agency because they can decide, rather than – as is typical, of course, in a school – they are mostly told what to do."

Created by CHAC arts Program Director Carol Mellberg, the vision for BackTogether! was to address student anxiety and social connection issues that were exacerbated when children had to learn from home during the pandemic. The program ran for four weeks in Mountain View Whisman School District classrooms at the start of this school year, and served 1,200 second and fourth graders across nine campuses.

BackTogether! isn't therapy, Mellberg said, it's mental health prevention. Therapy is still available upon teacher referral if a child needs it, but CHAC arts programming is focused on giving kids the tools to express themselves artistically.

"It's not individual therapy, so when we are doing this program in the classrooms we are not going to start asking the children any questions, we are not doing therapy, we are not analyzing their drawings," Seulamo-Vargas said.

Rather, kids are given arts supplies, paper and freedom to create whatever they want. Therapists leading the sessions sprinkle "feelings check-ins" throughout to help kids engage with their emotions and then externalize them through art.

"It's led by therapists because you want the safety in there," Mellberg said. "Externalizing needs safety, it needs understanding and unconditional positive regard."

For young children who are used to having every minute of their school days planned out, the concept can be hard to grasp at first for some students, Seulamo-Vargas said.

"There were a few who found at first that it was really challenging for them," she said. "They would ask questions like, 'Can I really do what I want? Can I draw whatever?' So it was like a surprise to them."

But once kids adjust to the creative freedom, they flourish, Seulamo-Vargas said.

"I had a student who did a very expressive piece this fall," she said. "It was striking and powerful. The student was able to express a lot of emotion. Making art, for that particular student, probably was the best way to get those emotions out."

Mellberg said in one of the classrooms, the students were so excited to share their artwork that they asked their teacher to put it up on the overhead projector.

"They would stand up there with a pointer and just explain what their drawing was about, which was so empowering for them," Mellberg said. "A lot of teachers have told us, you know, they've never gone up to the front of the classroom before."

The BackTogether! program is just one way that CHAC serves local children. CHAC's clinic in Mountain View, located at 590 W. El Camino Real, provides multilingual counseling for children, teens, adults, couples and families, as well as school-based counseling services. The nonprofit is one of seven local organizations supported by donations to the Voice Holiday Fund, an annual charitable giving drive .

Donations to the Holiday Fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and will go directly to organizations like CHAC that provide critically needed mental health and prevention resources to children and others in the community. The Voice and its Holiday Fund partner, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation , are absorbing all administrative costs to run the fund, and all donations are tax-deductible.

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2021 Recipient Agency

Community Health Awareness Council
CHAC serves Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and seven school districts. Among the services it offers are schoolbased counseling and programs to protect students from high-risk behaviors.

Community School of Music & Arts
The Community School of Music and Arts provides hands-on art and music education in the classrooms of the Mountain View Whisman School District.

Community Services Agency
CSA is the community's safety-net providing critical support services for low-income individuals and families, the homeless and seniors in northern Santa Clara County, including Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

Day Worker Center of Mountain View
The Day Worker Center of Mountain View provides a secure place for workers and employers to negotiate wages and work conditions. It serves workers with job placements, English lessons, job skills workshops and guidance.

Mayview Community Health Center
The MayView Community Health Center in Mountain View offers primary care services to low-income and uninsured patients in northern Santa Clara County. No patient is turned away for inability to pay for services, which include prenatal and pediatric care, cancer screenings and chronic disease management.

Mentor Tutor Connection
Mentor Tutor Connection matches adult volunteers who serve either as mentors with under-served youth in high school or as tutors to students in elementary and middle schools in Mountain View and Los Altos school districts.

YWCA of Silicon Valley
This group operates a 24-hour bilingual hotline and a safe shelter for women and their children. It also offers counseling and other services for families dealing with domestic violence.

As of March 21st, 132 donors have contributed $71,561 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

46 Anonymous14,808
Robert J. Rohrbacher100
David E. Simon & Lynn Gordon1,000
The PS & KW Creger Family Trust 500
Catherine Howard*
Charlene Miyashita50
David L. Hatt250
Dr. Dana E. Backman100
Lisa Topping and Mark Buggy*
Kevin & Robin Duggan*
James and Marilyn Kelly*
Jim & Mia Whitfield*
Pamela Baird & Greg Unangst1,000
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Paul & Sarah Donahue2,000
Lawrence K. Wallace50
Mitch & Barb Topol50
Dan Pappas250
Karen & David Keefer100
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Bruce & Twana Karney350
Norma Jean Bodey Galiher200
Thomas J. Mucha350
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Ellen Wheeler50
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Mark Flider250
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Ross S Heitkamp*
Sandra and Craig Peterson200
Ann McCarty*
Murray Family100
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Sally Evans100
Karen Skold50
Steve Attinger500
Emily Arcolino3,000
Christopher and Mary Dateo1,000
Ed Taub and Sheri Gish108
Marilyn Gildea*
The Depenhart Family750
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Mary DeMasters*
Boris Burtin100
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Kelly Family1,000
Herta Schreiner & Miguel Garcia200
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Ann Kapoun200
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Bruce Heflinger1,000
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Dolores N. Goodman500
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Ross & Karen Heitkamp350
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Rudy & Debra Robinson 200
David D. Meir-Levi25
Tom & Barbara Lustig*
Elisabeth Seaman500
Cliff and Kara Chambers1,000
Jeral Poskey250
Jerry & Sherri Morrison 700
Judith A. Manton500
Kathleen & Serge Bonte200
Shirley K. Ingalls*
Jas Laskowski3,000
Margaret Chapman100
David Fung*
Leona K. Chu*
Jeff Segall & Helen He200
Kevin & Laurel Smith Charitable Fund3,000
In Memory Of

Jim & Sally Hayden-Myer210
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Mack & Laila Holombo*
In Honor Of

Edward, Petros & Thalia200
Ed, Petros and Thalia185
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ebernsconsulting, llc150
Hewlett Foundation8,750
Packard Foundation8,000