Artistry in Resilience: Social worker inspired to provide whole-person care through art
It might be a simple brushstroke to some, a fleeting touch of paint to canvas, but within the halls of Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, Natalie Ho perceives it as a connection, a lifeline.
As a social worker in Hines' Caregiver Support Program, she noticed a growing isolation among the program's 600 caregivers during the pandemic and wanted to find a way to help participants embrace their whole person and reconnect with themselves.
"I think caregivers were some of the hardest hit people [during the pandemic] since, already, caregivers tend to feel very isolated and struggle to engage in self-care," she said.
According to Ho, caregivers are often family, friends, or neighbors shouldering the weight of ensuring loved ones remain comfortable and safe.
Ho's diverse background, melding fine arts with social work, paved the way for an innovative response to this challenge: holding virtual creative arts workshops.
"I'm really passionate about how art can be very healing for people," Ho said. "I've always tried to incorporate art into my [social work] practice."
Caregiver interest quickly grew, and Ho expanded her idea through the VA's Spark-Seed-Spread program, which provides VA employees funding and resources to innovate and improve experiences throughout the organization.
Ho is completing Seed, a year-long project testing a fully functional prototype, and developing resources and partnerships for her classes.
These partnerships included various organizations that saw the benefit of helping caregivers. Help Heal Veterans donated knitting and dreamcatcher craft kits, the Illinois VFW Auxiliary provided a large donation of watercolor kits and the Wheaton Public Library donated magazines for art journaling. Hines VA's Whole Health program and other hospital services provided additional supplies.
"I can't thank all these programs and community partners enough," said Ho.
Over the past year, Ho has held virtual and in-person classes. Originally, her concept consisted of single class but expanded to four-week workshops.
According to Ho, watercolor painting is the most popular class.
Caregiver Linda Kirby's experience illuminates the project's profound impact. Engaging in Ho's watercolor class, she found more than just an artistic outlet.
"This class has been helpful. I'd been trying to get back into art, and now I have," she noted. "It gives me time to immerse myself into something that isn't stressful for a while."
For Mary Turner, another caregiver, the class became a shared canvas of expression with her husband. Now, the couple discusses art they see throughout the day, including the medium and techniques.
"The two of us got to share something together. It's opened up a whole different conversation," she said.
At the crux of this endeavor, Ho's mission shines with clarity: to support caregivers' whole-person wellbeing.
"You have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you put on the other person's," Ho said. "So, you must take time out for yourself because you're not going to be able to do this long-term. You're going to get burned out. If it's not knitting, if it's not watercolor, that's fine. But whatever it is, we want to support you and connect you to that so you can continue to care for the veteran."