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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2024 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.

Hope's Corner
Hope's Corner provides homeless, low-income and vulnerable people in the community with nutritious meals, hot showers, laundry services, refurbished bicycles, and connections to other services in a dignified and welcoming environment – all at the corner of Hope and Mercy Streets in downtown Mountain View.

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.

As of December 3rd, 32 donors have contributed $9,850 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

8 Anonymous2,000
Kathleen & Serge Bonte250
Sheri and Jerry Morrison*
Ellis Berns and Mary J Walsh250
Dave and Diane Chang*
David and Karen Keefer100
Andy & Liz Coe100
Cynthia Imboden100
Robert J. Rohrbacher*
Nelson and Robin Iwai50
Bruce and Twana Karney350
The Burtin Family*
Kevin & Robin Duggan*
Susan Elliott800
The Depenhart family*
Emily Arcolino500
John P. Miller250
Poskey Chen Charitable Fund500
Tom & Barbara Lustig*
Mary and Christopher Dateo1,000
Laurie Bonilla & Ed Perry300
Ellen Wheeler50
Kathleen and Reese Cutler*
Leslie Peterson100
Robin Teng500