Vets utilize creative spaces at Tidewater Arts Outreach programs

The domiciliary at the Hampton VA has a large, bright central space where the 100 or so men and women living there come together for bingo and other group/social events.  Vets stay at the domiciliary to receive residential services for an array of psychiatric, mental health and social problems, including PTSD, homelessness, and alcohol/substance abuse.  The average length of stay is 60 days; some programs allow for longer residencies.

Tidewater Arts Outreach has been sharing music and arts with vets at the ‘dom’ since 2007.  A large number of the vets I’ve encountered there, over the years, have seemed withdrawn, quiet and sad.  Tidewater Arts Outreach artists facilitate creative engagement, teach new skills and provide immersion in an engrossing, beneficial activity.  By allowing vets to focus on making art, or music or movement, we are fostering learning, psycho-social engagement, self-expression and creative, spontaneous, group activity.  We see delight, eye contact and high-fives.  We hear laughter, singing, lots of music and applause.  We get hugs and sincere thanks.

We’ve shared many programs over the years:

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In 2011 we presented a harmonica workshop with military veteran and blues harp master Tom Dikon.  Hohner donated dozens of harmonicas, so attending vets all took home a new instrument. We have also presented visual arts workshops, drum circles, rock and bluegrass bands and Virginia Arts Festival ensembles at the ‘dom,’ to ‘excellent’ reviews from staff and vets.

In 2016-17 we plan to present three or four drop in jam sessions, where vets get to learn from and play instruments with artists.  We recruit six to eight musicians, who bring lyrics sheets and extra guitars, bass, and percussion to share.  Vets are encouraged to pick up instruments and try them out.  Our musicians take turns presenting songs and teaching.  Almost everyone sings.  A few folks dance, encouraged by our artists and volunteers.  These events have been a big hit with all participants, with comments like:

  • “The instructor really got the crowd going. It was a good new experience.”
  • “Excellent program that allows you to feel good about whatever you produce. Excellent encouragement from facilitator.”
  • “Instructors took their time with helping us and showing us that whatever we do is art. Outstanding event.”
  • “It inspired me to play clarinet again after 36 years! I was thrilled to find out I could still get a decent sound out of the clarinet and even ad lib with the band! It was wonderful!”
  • “Vets like the jam fest best!” “Joyous!”  “Please come back we love the group performances.”

Research shows us that music-making is good for the brain.  It helps the brain wire itself differently, which is helpful in self-discovery and making sense of the world around us.  It creates a healing environment, allowing patients to address the mental and emotional aspects of recovery.  It’s a healthy pastime that is accessible to most (think singing and rhythm-making) and adaptible to different abilities.  It’s amazing how much good can come from these vet jam sessions that use classic rock and R&B music-making as a catalyst for conversation, relaxation, creative self-expression, self-esteem building and more.

We are honored that the Elizabeth Dole Foundation recently recognized Tidewater Arts Outreach as a ‘Hidden Hero’ (www.hiddenheroes.org) in delivering needed services to veterans.  We present outreach programs to vets with minimal outside financial assistance; we are actively looking for more funding to stabilize and expand these services.  On another note, we have visual arts professionals working with children of military families in pediatric oncology at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

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We added a new program in 2016, the Community Healing Arts Initiative, in partnership with the VB Community Development Corp., for vets living in low-income housing in  Virginia Beach.  It, too, has been a critical success.

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