The Language of Art: Free Arts and Unaccompanied Minors

There is a growing concern, particularly in Southwest states like Arizona, about the children crossing the United States border and who are then held in detention centers and shelters while they work through the immigration process.  They are often referred to as “border children”, but the legal term for them is “unaccompanied minors” as they have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, 57,900 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border since January 2019. These children have traveled hundreds to thousands of miles, either by themselves or with adult family members to the United States. These stories have started a broad conversation about how to help children that are going through trauma and traumatic situations that many of us have never experienced.

Free Arts began working with this special population of children more than six years ago. Over the past several years Free Arts has expanded our partnerships with agencies that serve unaccompanied minors. Through these partnerships, Free Arts provides arts programming that helps the children build resilience and hope, develop self-efficacy, acquire skills, express themselves, and feel safe. Despite the language barrier, teaching artists and volunteer mentors who facilitate these programs connect deeply with the children. This summer, children at an unaccompanied minor shelter participated in a Free Arts culinary arts series and worked with a professional chef to learn how to create and prepare meals from scratch.  The staff at the shelter were impressed with how the children responded. One of the staff members from the shelter noted, “A couple of residents were shy at first however, by the end of the class they did not want to leave. This program was great for the kids to break the routine and try something new. The volunteer and teaching artist were great people and really fun! The kids did not want them to leave.”

Even the smallest of connections with these children can lead to meaningful moments. Two boys from an unaccompanied minors shelter attended a Free Arts Day when they became riveted by a project using unique beads to make jewelry.  When the time came to move on to the next activity, they would circle back to hold and stare at the beads.  Free Arts teaching artist, Shari Keith took notice of the boys’ interest in the beads and shared this story with the Free Arts staff. To build on their interest, Free Arts staff members designed a special event at that particular shelter so that these two boys, along with over 100 other children living there, were able to create their own pieces of jewelry with the special beads.   

In just the past year Free Arts provided a multitude of programs to this population of unaccompanied minor children. Here are some of the numbers:

  • 265 children participated in a total of 8 program activities
  • Two groups of children created original artwork with Free Arts and then had their artwork publicly displayed as part of a partnership with the Phoenix Art Museum.
  • 15 Free Arts staff, volunteer mentors, and professional teaching artists completed extensive additional training in order to work with these children on an ongoing basis.

While living in a shelter, many of the aspects of these children’s lives are out of their control. Even their future is in the hands of a judge. The programs that Free Arts offers give these children the freedom to express themselves through art and to interact with more adults who truly care about their well-being during this incredibly difficult transition.   

If you are interested in learning more about how you can volunteer directly with unaccompanied minor children or other children who have suffered the trauma of abuse or homelessness, please click here to register for a volunteer orientation.

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