Free Arts Founder, Margaret Beresford, Shares her Story

It is a story of perseverance and how…

Every child matters.

Every story matters.

Art is vital to telling the story.

As a registered art therapist and licensed professionals counselor, I see a lot of people and hear their stories every day. It is impossible to tell by looking at someone the depth of despair in their story. We are all beautifully broken, because life is messy, and it doesn’t play favorites.  The struggle is in knowing there is a greater purpose in our suffering in the moment.  

Take me for example. Growing up my mother’s undiagnosed and untreated depression and alcoholism made her emotionally unavailable, and I was the target of much of her rage.  As a result, I was very depressed as a child and attempted to take my life at one point and often wondered, why is this happening, what did I do, what is the point of going on?

I think when children suffer it is especially difficult because they don’t know any different and think this is just the way life is. 

I understand now that my mother could not relate to me for who I was because her

own soul was not free from the tournament of her childhood.

Miraculous Mentors

Social isolation makes mentors all the more important in healing wounded souls.

I thank God for my three art teachers in middle and high school;

Margaret Carqueville, Margaret/Marci Warner and Margaret Burrell.

They saw value in me and took time to acknowledge my art…

they liked my art – which to a wounded child translates to…

maybe I’m not all bad, maybe there is something of value here.

I remember in 7th grade,

we were asked to make something in response to the phrase “LOVE IS….”

I made a linoleum block print of 3 lion cubs, 1 cub was black, and the other 2 were blue, and they were all hugging each other and I finished the “Love is…” statement with “togetherness”. I wasn’t aware at the time of the poetry in it, but it is clear to me now it was my subconscious expressing itself through my art. This happens all the time in spontaneous art therapy.

In college I was able to create art that really felt transformational and truly therapeutic.

Through my art process I realized that being strong on the outside is not true strength

but that true strength lies in the willingness to be vulnerable and feel our brokenness.

By graduation, I knew art was healing but had no idea there was something called art therapy.

After college I returned to Phoenix and a friend told me her sister had done art therapy.

I never heard of it. I was I intrigued. It combined my interest in art and healing.

I looked for art therapy training in Phoenix and enrolled in the Phoenix Art Therapy Institute. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to risk their opinions, criticism, or fears about my choice, to allow them to influence my decision. Sometimes you just gotta do what you want.

I told the instructors of my transformative experience with art in college and that I really thought I had “worked through my issues”.  Thankfully, I they told me the experiential process was mandatory, and I still had to do it. Little did I know my “transformational art experience” in college was only the tip of the iceberg. 

For the next 2-3 years, three amazing art therapists, Betsy Shapiro, Eugenia Sutcliffe, and Krista Soste, provided a safe, judgement free environment and unconditional love that was

at first hard to accept. They taught me about relationship, how to love and heal myself,

and how to facilitate healing in others. They showed me how art therapy allowed me to sit safely with my suffering. They showed me what it felt like to be nurtured and taught me how to nurture, for which I am the most grateful, for without it I would not be the mother I am today. They truly saved my life.

Upon getting my ATR-BC, I prayed for direction in how to proceed because back then there weren’t any jobs for art therapists. I decided I had to go back to school for my counseling degree, and at the same time, the opportunity to bring the healing effects of the arts to the abused and neglected children in Phoenix came to me by way of an art therapist from California named Elda Unger. 

With little else than an inner knowing that I was meant to do this, I set to work figuring out how to incorporate and get volunteers, bring a board together, enlist partner facilities as well as provide the program, train the volunteers and buy all necessary supplies. I’ll never forget going to the Volunteer Center for advice and being told, “You know only one of every one hundred non-profits that start each year are around the next year to talk about it.” All I thought was, Free Arts is going to be that one.”  For the next 2 years I did nothing but talk, eat, sleep and breathe Free Arts. I was told I should stop by one of my mentors. She said that it was too much and didn’t know how much longer I could go on (this was about 1 year in with about 6 months to go before getting our initial funding). I didn’t listen. Nothing could dissuade me.

I know that without the suffering I experienced in childhood there is no way I would have had the unwavering perseverance that is required to create something out of nothing. 

Starting Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona made sense of my past and brought purpose to my childhood.

What I’d like people to take away from this story is that art therapy saved my life, and Free Arts is a testimony to every wounded soul that you do have value, your life does matter, and you can make a difference. When children have mentors who are there to ignite their creative life force, provide hope and a sense of purpose, nothing is impossible. 

Curative factors of Art Therapy

Art Therapy helps us feel safe, to express difficult emotions,

and tell the part of our story there are no words for. 

The art becomes the safe container for the hurt, rage and other overwhelming feelings.

The therapist facilitates a safe environment free from judgement to allow for freedom of expression and one’s visual story to unfold.

It is not about the product, although many times clients are surprised by what is created, 

It is about the process.  It is about the relationship.

It is a sensory modality which is ideal to address trauma.

Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona Today

I am very excited about the direction Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona is going because I believe it closely embodies the healing elements I experienced at the Phoenix Art Therapy Institute (no longer in existence).

In the Free Arts’ office, the staff and volunteers seem to be beacons of unconditional love and share their love of the arts with each child and family. There is work being done to help the kids transitioning into adulthood and focus on developing trauma resilience. I have always envisioned Free Arts would be a hub for the expressive arts therapies and be able to provide art therapy and other expressive therapy services to further enhance the healing experience.

It brings me pure joy to go to the Free Arts office because of the feeling I get when I walk in the door. It is unlike anywhere else. It is a dream come true to see Free Arts 25 years later, in a permanent home thanks to the Parson’s Foundation.

I want to express my sincere gratitude to all of the volunteers, board members, partner agencies, and donors who have given to Free Arts over the past 25 years.

Thanks most of all to the 122,000 children and families who welcomed us into their lives and shared their stories.

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