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It is estimated that one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Caldwell University students in the M.A. in Mental Health Counseling with Art Therapy Specialization program are making a difference in the lives of women and children who have been traumatized by domestic violence. Students have the opportunity to do field work at the nonprofit organization Shelter Our Sisters (SOS) in Hackensack, which provides emergency shelter and resources for women and children who have been affected by emotional, economic, sexual or physical abuse. “This is our best site for experience in making an impact on a family system in crisis,” says Annette Vaccaro, LCSW, ATR-BC, Caldwell art therapy instructor and clinical coordinator for the graduate counseling degree with art therapy specialization.

The Caldwell students learn how to work with mothers and children who have a broad range of social and personal problems. SOS offers art therapy in its emergency shelter in individual or group sessions. Women and children attend weekly group sessions and the children meet with Creative Arts Therapist Marta Levy in individual sessions. “The process of art-making helps survivors externalize the trauma of family violence when words alone cannot express the feelings of grief, chaos and loss of control,” says Levy, who also works as the director of the Children’s Program. “Ultimately, it helps survivors find their voice.”

Levy says the Caldwell students have brought “a thirst for knowledge” to SOS and the ability to be flexible under difficult circumstances. “They exhibit empathy and passion for the work we do with survivors of domestic violence, with women and children.”

Sona Santagato received an M.A. in counseling with mental health counseling/art therapy specialization in December 2013. She did field work at SOS and says she appreciated learning about emergency crisis intervention in a short-term setting and how to help women stabilize and “become empowered to self-sufficiency to care for themselves and their children.” An interesting aspect of the experience was learning how to respond to cultural diversity and how that emerged in the art. “I became more aware of cultural differences and culture-specific meanings for colors, symbols and images,” Santagato says.

She also saw the harsh realities of domestic violence and the difficulties women and children face including “court hearings, economic strife, drug addiction or mental and physical health disorders.”

For children, “art is a natural way to communicate,” says Vaccaro, and “it bridges the gap for some between what is speakable and what is not speakable. The graduate students learn how to spot something that might be revealed only through the art. “A child may be given the message not to talk about an event when there are secrets within the family, but it is sometimes revealed in the artwork,” she says.

The Caldwell students helped the mothers by giving them a safe space to talk and make art. “The art can communicate and help the mothers learn to think in new ways. It is empowering, lowers isolation and allows the mothers’ choice, especially when one may feel they have no choices at all,” says Vaccaro. Working at SOS prepares the Caldwell students for other places they may work where information about abuse may emerge in the process of art-making.

Levy has found it a pleasure to work with the Caldwell students and faculty because they are “professional, responsive and responsible to their commitment in working with SOS.”

Knowing there is a place like SOS will stay with graduates like Santagato as they make a difference in the world through counseling and art therapy. “SOS will forever live in my heart,” Santagato says. “There is hope for women and children at the shelter—survivors of domestic violence— where they are safe.”

Other News : Caldwell Receives Garden State Journalists Award for Art Therapy Video

A video highlighting the M.A. in Counseling with Mental Health Counseling/ Art Therapy Specialization program was selected as a winner for the Garden State Journalists Association Awards. The video, which was chosen in the Electronic News Gathering (ENG) feature category, was produced by the Caldwell Media Relations office, filmed by Rafael Sepulvada ’13 and edited by Marina Maret ’14 and Aimee Demarest ’14.

View video here