Read Time: 6 Minutes

Art and creativity provide a special kind of healing in Kentucky

Hands Healing HeArts participants undertake writing, drama, music, sculpture and visual arts projects as vehicles for self-discovery and expression.

In May 2017, heavily collaged scale 3-D self-portraits filled the stage at the renovated Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Kentucky. Crafted through the Hands Healing HeArts/Yes Arts program (HHH), this initiative serves women in the Franklin County Drug Court system.

The not-for-profit serves individuals otherwise headed to the penitentiary or jail due to drug convictions. HHH participants undertake writing, drama and improvisation, music, sculpture, and visual arts projects as vehicles for self-discovery and expression. Doris Thurber, Rebekah Berry, and Karen Hatter currently lead these sessions.

The organization emerged from Thurber’s own emotional struggles following her 22-year-old daughter Maya’s death associated with heroin and fentanyl. Already an artist, creating collages that featured Maya woven throughout them helped Thurber to heal her broken emotions and create a new normal the following year.

"At the end of that year, I had an art show with those pieces and writings from Maya and me; it told a story about what she was struggling with,” Thurber says.

Artist and friend Jennifer Zingg (a visual artist and teacher who has since moved on) was initially an enormous help.

“We really started Hands Healing HeArts as a reaction to Maya’s death and alarm about what was going on in our community regarding the upswing and abuse of drugs taking the lives of our precious people,” Thurber says.

Thurber reached out to Judge Phillip Shepherd — Maya went before him at court and he took her death very hard — and they began communicating.

group of nonprofit employees at a museum At the Louisville International Film Festival screening: Rebekah Berry, Doris Thurber, Judge Phillip Shepherd, Joanna Hay, Amelia Berry, and Karen Hatter. (Photo: Yes Arts)

“He was the natural person to connect with and we found out we could access women from Drug Court,” Thurber says. “[These women] had to attend groups of one type or another and we started only with women because of our grant source. We try to make HHH fun, but enriching at the same time.”

Each session includes several one-day projects. The group often works on a final project, too. This year they’re creating a book that features writing and visual art. Women in the Drug Court system must follow strict rules and receive routine drug testing; in addition, a Drug Court representative attends each session.

Making this a mandated program assured these women would actually show up. Although first-year participants weren’t initially very interested in HHH, they all described benefits they experienced in a year-end survey.

“My probation officer agreed that I could do this,” says Angie Boone. “[The first time], I felt like a kid going to art school. Now, when I’m in that little room, I don’t think of anything but the art — it’s about being able to open up about your addiction. I’ve learned a lot about being more patient and I’ve learned that I can draw. Since completing the program, I sketch with my 16-year-old daughter and we find ourselves in deep conversations."

“People dealing with the same struggles help each other out in the group. Drug Court has given me the tools and understanding that I’m not alone and these ladies inspire me daily.”

There’s an ebb and flow to who participates. Some women are in and out of HHH and one has participated for the entire three years. The group typically averages 10 to 11 women at a time. Low income is common and many participants are in their late 20s to early 30s.

Drug Court requires that each woman have stable housing — sometimes in a local shelter — and a job in which their employer will work with their Drug Court schedule. They often do not initially have custody of their children, although they are usually reunited after several months in Drug Court.

When HHH began in 2016, it received funds from The Kentucky Foundation for Women. Current Executive Director for HHH, Amelia Berry, helped write the grant, a function that she has continued since then.

“When we first wrote the grant, we looked at things like how connected [Drug Court participants] felt with a healthy community,” Berry says. “Their coping skills, ability to express themselves, and recognize triggers. [We considered] how safe they feel and how much support they feel they have in the community.”

Local filmmaker, Joanna Hay, crafted an inspiring 29-minute documentary about HHH several years ago. It was shown at the Muhammad Ali Center during the Louisville International Film Festival, and at the city’s Speed Art Museum, as well as other small venues. Hay may create a new movie that would provide updates about participants from the first film.

Group of panelists in film screening At a screening of Art of Recovery, featuring Joanna Hay, Judge Phillip Shepherd, Doris Thurber, and Brittney, a participant in the Drug Court program. (Photo: Yes Arts)

Current top funding sources include the Kentucky Social Welfare Foundation (the largest) and the Louisville-based Snowy Owl Foundation. The Kentucky Foundation for Women still lends support, too.

The Kentucky Arts Council also provided a one day consultancy regarding organizational development, led by an artist who ran a community theater for years. They also did a powerful one-hour podcast with Thurber and Boone.

HHH gladly shares its program with other locales, too. They have already met with Drug Court representatives and artists in Shelby County and Louisville about creating similar programs.

Recently, HHH/Yes Arts created a preventative program for school-age children, addressing the need for appealing activities during their free time. The Frankfort-Independence school district is generally a higher risk population, with plenty of sports programming but few after-school arts opportunities.

”You have to give kids activities they can say ‘yes’ to,” Berry says. “Our Board adopted Yes Arts as a name for this program, which is partially modeled after an Icelandic model by Dr. Harvey Milkman.”

(After Iceland provided a greater variety of structured after-school activities over one-and-a-half decades, and encouraged more family time, the level of substance abuse among young people went from the highest level in Europe to the lowest.)

HHH/Yes Arts will host a week of art camps this summer and, by fall, Thurber and Berry anticipate once-a-week arts offerings with some scholarship money available. Activities may include playing steel drums; nature photography and journaling at the local Josephine Sculpture Park; or dance classes held at a downtown studio.

Thirty-seven professional artists have signed up and about 25 are locals. Their day-long training will address trauma-informed instruction, implicit bias, and risk and protective factors for potential substance abuse among children.

“We ask artists what art did for them, as young people, and how they can pay that forward,” Thurber says.

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

Learn More

Have you heard what's good?

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest in philanthropic stories and news.