Wailoa Center program lets lava evacuees express anxieties through creativity

  • Nancy Seifers, who's Kapoho home is surrounded by lava and inaccessible, smiles as she does a gesture drawing Thursday during "Bouncing Back" an art facilitated recovery program at Wailoa Center in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
  • From left, Kim Ortman and Mitzi Bettencourt, who both lost their Vacation Land homes to lava, do gesture drawings Thursday during “Bouncing Back,” an art facilitated recovery program at Wailoa Center in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • Nancy Jo "NJ" Moses describes gesture drawing Thursday during "Bouncing Back" an art facilitated recovery program at Wailoa Center in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
  • President of SDTA Nedhi Chabora leads "Bouncing Back" an art facilitated recovery program Thursday at Wailoa Center in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — At a Thursday art meeting at Wailoa Center, nine displaced residents from Kapoho, Vacationland and Leilani Estates were asked to write down their emotional states and draw representations of them.

One person depicted “calm” with a brightly colored diamond cocooned within a black shell. Another portrayed their feelings — “peaceful” — as the surface of a placid blue lake.

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The mood, however, seemed more like a third drawing: “Unsettled,” as depicted by an erratically pulsing waveform.

At Bouncing Back, a program by Hilo nonprofit Self Discovery Through Art, volcano-displaced residents use art and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to aid their recovery from trauma.

At Thursday’s meeting of Bouncing Back — the fifth of an intended 11 weekly meetings — attendees discussed how their emotional states have been affected by their situation. Some reported restless sleep and violent dreams; others reported feelings of ennui and a lack of strong emotion.

“Our first stage was survival, making sure we were all safe,” said former Kapoho resident Nancy Paul. “Now we all have to figure out what’s next.”

Paul said the program has allowed her to feel hopeful even at a time when she is unsure about whether her current home is permanent or if she will have to move again.

“I have to think about what’s my next adventure at 69,” Paul said.

Nidhi Chabora, a nurse and a cognitive behavioral therapist for Care Hawaii, told attendees to think about their emotional responses to their trauma and try to shift their thinking away from what she called “the three Ps” — permanent, pervasive and personal.

Chabora explained that viewing a traumatic experience as a permanent state that pervades one’s every thought is an unhealthy mode of thinking. Instead, she encouraged attendees to compartmentalize their feelings, allowing them to exist but remaining detached from them, and to understand their situation as temporary.

“Don’t get too attached to the view in the rear view mirror,” Chabora said.

Chabora said she started Self Discovery Through Art with art educator Nancy Moses as a means to build resilience among trauma sufferers after observing how her patients expressed themselves more articulately through art. After several test programs last year involving different age groups, the Kilauea eruption presented an opportunity to test the “art-facilitated recovery program” on actual trauma victims.

So far, the response has been positive, Moses said. Bunnie Kruger, who relocated to Ocean View after her Vacationland residence burned down, said she is glad to talk with people in similar circumstances.

“Non-displaced people just don’t get it,” said Nancy Seifers, herself relocated from Kapoho. “There’s a lot of understanding and camaraderie here.”

Thursday’s lesson, focused on light physical activity, raised attendees’ spirits. Laughter rang out as attendees sketched one other striking poses.

Moses said that, although the program is not technically “art therapy” — as it makes neither diagnoses nor prescriptions — engaging in art is inherently therapeutic and teaches participants techniques to manage their own emotions.

“We give people skills, not pills, to treat their ills,” Moses said. “If you will,” Chabora added.

Chabora said she hopes to have funding for a second 12-session program of Bouncing Back by the time the current program is completed. While the program’s current venue, Wailoa Center, was provided free of charge by director Codie King, Chabora said the second program will hopefully take place closer to Pahoa.

“I feel like it’s important for my personal growth,” Paul said. “It says it’s OK to be feeling this way.”

The Thursday session ended with attendees once again drawing their emotional states. The responses — “exuberant,” “alive,” “inspired” — were uniformly more optimistic, which Chabora encouraged attendees to try to sustain as long as possible.

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“The reason we move is so we can keep moving,” Chabora said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com