Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona: Healing abused and homeless children through artistic expression

What if community members could create a safe space where children who have experienced trauma could express themselves and begin to heal?

Photo of Jessica Flowers
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 1993 art therapist Margaret Beresford had a vision of bringing the healing effects of the arts to abused and neglected children in Arizona. She recognized that a caring community and the arts could build resilience and cultivate hope in children who have experienced trauma. Based on a model out of Los Angeles, Free Arts began with 5 volunteers serving 50 children annually by partnering with foster care group homes, shelters, and treatment centers. Today Free Arts brings together over 900 community members to serve over 7,000 a year in 4 core programs. Each year, we see children who have experienced unspeakable trauma, children who have no real place to call home, find a sense of belonging, express their stories and identity, and build transferrable life skills in our programs. But we’re ready to do more. Our programs and services are needed in other areas of our state and in additional underserved populations including kinship and foster families. We are poised to move forward into the future with other child serving agencies to cultivate child wellbeing and promote prevention. Let's do this! “The thing I liked best about this program was learning that you are not alone and that you have love everywhere”. - Max, age 13, Free Art participant


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Arizona

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Arizona

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, Peoria, Chandler, Avondale, Tempe, Scottsdale, Goodyear, Surprise

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Each year, over 78,600 Arizona children experience the pain of abuse, neglect and homelessness. For these children, the extreme and prolonged stress of their traumatic experiences often becomes toxic, affecting their bodies, their brains, and their development. This “toxic stress,” if left untreated, can impair a child’s brain development, focus, and decision making skills. Children who have experienced trauma are often provided services that meet their basic needs. Federal and state funding provide food, shelter and medical assistance to these children and often select therapeutic services. But in order to achieve holistic wellbeing, children need a place to belong, a way to express themselves and a reason to get up in the morning.

Research shows that in order to overcome trauma, children need to build resilience. According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, resilience is built though caring community relationships and the development of new skills.

Free Arts creates a world where community members join together to support children as they explore their stories and learn and practice new skills in and through the arts. Free Arts programs build resilience by:

  • Creating a safe and positive environment where children can express themselves
  • Connecting children with caring adults
  • Allowing children to learn and practice artistic and life skills
  • Connecting children with their peers and community

Free Arts utilizes the arts and proven youth development methods to deliver a model that we call “Art with Intention.” Each program is thoughtfully planned to include specific elements that promote safety, self-expression, and a sense of belonging. Simple activities like closing rituals and creating group expectations inform the significant transformation that many children experience in our programs.

All Free Arts programs are delivered by volunteer mentors and professional teaching artists. Free Arts believes that anyone can help heal a child. We provide specialized training on brain development and trauma, effective communication with children, and the healing effects of the arts.

In recent years, the idea of therapeutic arts has become more mainstream through the work being done with veterans with PTSD. The military's acknowledgement of the effects of arts therapy on soldiers has legitimized work that has been effectively proven for many years. We are grateful for the notoriety that these veteran's projects are bringing to therapeutic arts. We have been able to build on this popularity and engage policymakers looking at a diverse group of interests - children, social services, military, youth development, and community engagement.

The Free Arts model is engaging because it does not require a specialized skill-set, like a therapeutic credential.  Because this work - Art with Intention - can be delivered by community volunteers, the cost to governments and existing funding organizations is minimal and the work can be scaled for greater impact.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Education
  • Mental Health
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Homeless and trafficked children

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Four years ago, Gordy found himself and his family homeless and lived under a bridge for two years. Nowhere to call home and living meal to meal, Gordy said, “I knew I was depressed and I felt like I would never smile again.” Four years ago, Gordy and his family found transitional housing with one of Free Arts’ partner agencies and Gordy began to participate in Free Arts programs where he discovered dance as an expressive tool. Gordy participated in a variety of Free Arts programs including Camp and the Weekly Mentor Program. Now, Gordy is a vibrant 12th grader who performs with his school dance team and helped found the Free Arts Youth Leadership Team. Gordy says “Free Arts is responsible for my attitude change. I went from sad to WHOA!"

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In 2016, Free Arts is going to achieve 100,000 children served over our 23 years. In 2015, we served over 7,300 children by mobilizing over 900 volunteers. This year we will serve 8,200 children. In 2015, our evaluation data showed that: 98% of children felt safe when engaging in Free Arts programs 92% of children demonstrated an increase in resilience 82% of children increased their perception of self-efficacy Our programs are constantly evaluated, annually reviewed, and debriefed after each session completes. We participate in groups that are reviewing and incorporating current research. One group is looking at the growing body of work around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the long-term health effects of childhood trauma. We are currently conducting a needs assessment to determine the unmet need that our programs can address as we grow.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Free Arts has a balance of foundation, corporate, individual, and government grants support. Having achieved our third consecutive year of revenue growth, Free Arts increased our budget 20% to strengthen our program impact and increase recognition within our community. As we continue to achieve program outcomes attractive to our funders and develop new opportunities, we anticipate this trend of healthy financial growth will continue.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

-Our programs focus on very specific outcomes that are proven to affect resiliency. -Our practices and trainings are trauma-informed. -We partner with community entities including: arts and culture organizations, corporations, individuals, and child welfare agencies. -We provide, not only programs, but resources and training for over 35 agencies in our community; working to create systemic change by training groups that work with children in trauma on the effectiveness of trauma-informed creative arts on children.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

As a culture, there has been a shift in the last few years toward holistic wellbeing for children. The research that was done for decades is now readily available and very clear about the long-term health effects of trauma in children. For these children, we must use our proven techniques and provide a way for that child to address their issues, release emotions in a positive way, and learn to trust and heal. These children that are the least successful in every study - children in foster care, shelters, or extreme poverty situations - need to be made whole again.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Facebook

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Becca AbuRakia-Einhorn

Program Design Clarity

Free Arts partners with 35 agencies including foster care group homes, shelters, and treatment centers to serve children who have experienced trauma through: • Weekly Mentor Program: matches mentors with groups of kids in weekly art sessions for up to 16 weeks. • Professional Artist Series: teaching artists lead children in workshops focused on specific artistic skills. • Camp Series: weeklong day camps that explore various art forms. • Free Arts Days: 1 day events at arts and culture venues in Phoenix. Programs are led by volunteers/teaching artists and are held throughout the year.

Community Leadership

Free Arts partners with child welfare and arts and culture agencies to provide meaningful community experiences for children. Each year we host a conference for partner agencies, funders, and community groups to discuss challenges, brainstorm solutions, and learn new techniques for using the arts to increase child wellbeing. This year we are conducting a community-wide needs assessment to ascertain the gaps in services for child trauma victims.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

Free Arts programs are conducted by community volunteers who do not need special skills or accreditation. For this reason our program model is highly sustainable and transferrable. Once we reach our goals within our immediate community (Maricopa County) we will begin discussing expansion strategies which will include developing partnerships with other agencies that have a state and nationwide presence.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Children in Free Arts programs experience a sense of belonging due to the presence of caring adult volunteers. Participants explore their identity through self-expression, using tools like painting, dancing, drumming, and poetry to share their stories. Children build skills and self-efficacy as they try new things and conquer their fears. Then they boldly move into the future with a sense of purpose and hope.

Leadership Story

“If Free Arts disappeared tomorrow the world would be a little less colorful.” This was a statement made by a longtime Free Arts mentor in 2010. I was 3 years into my tenure at the agency and I was incensed. I couldn’t believe that a mentor on the front lines couldn’t articulate the impact she was making on our community. I spent the next 3 years researching the effects of trauma on health and the brain and crafted an impact statement and program outcomes that clearly defined the imperative role that Free Arts plays in mitigating negative health implications and increasing resilience.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Arizona Commission on the Arts Community Arts Award Arts and Business Council Arts Organization of the Year Award National Society of Arts and Letters Arts Advocacy Award Channel 8 Be More Award

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Evaluation results

4 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 75%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 0%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 25%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 50%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 25%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 25%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 50%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 25%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 0%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 25%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 25%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 50%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 25%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 100%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 50%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Lacy Stephens

Hi Jessica, I really appreciate how well you've addressed and outlined the very thoughtfully constructed lessons/interventions as well as the evidence based impacts of arts oriented interventions. Congratulations on your impact on the children of AZ!