In the summer of 2014, having recently earned a master’s degree in art therapy from George Washington University, Alexis Decosimo ’07 watched news reports of the Ebola epidemic spreading across Liberia, a country whose young people she had come to love while living there and doing service work in 2012.
“While I watched the news from my home in the U.S.,” she remembers, “I could vividly picture the chaos and fear that was overtaking the streets and alleys where I had danced and played with the children of Liberia. I began analyzing the extreme emotional and psychological impact this situation would have on those children. With my combined understanding of trauma, expressive arts therapy, and Liberia, I couldn’t sit idle.”
Newly enrolled in a public health doctorate program at East Tennessee State University, Decosimo called on her colleague Jessi Hanson to go to Liberia and implement her idea of an emergency therapeutic-based expressive arts program for children most affected by Ebola. She called her idea Playing to Live!
While I watched the news from my home in the U.S.... I couldn’t sit idle.
“Art and play therapy helps children process trauma and com-municate their grief in healthy ways,” explains Decosimo. “It also helps improve human relationships needed for survival and recovery. Expression of emotions can be difficult for some of these children, and art or play helps them communicate those feelings.”
Playing to Live! is community and culturally based, with local adults trained to adapt and use therapeutic art techniques to support young victims. “We never wanted to be ‘foreigners’ coming in to play with children for a while and then leaving,” Decosimo says. “Crisis management with aid and support from other countries is important, but once the initial crisis is over we want the affected community to be able to run the program by themselves. In Liberia, we came in as a supplemental program and then handed it over to the community while providing continued background and support. What we create must have a cultural context.”
Playing to Live! has now taken therapeutic art and play to over 1,000 affected children in Liberia as well as homeless children in South Africa. The program also provides psychosocial support to the parents and guardians of those children and has offered 40 female adult Ebola survivors training as program facilitators. “With those trained adults living with the children,” Decosimo explains, “we’ve seen an incredible, positive impact.”
Now a global organization that has been featured by the New York Times and ABC News, Decosimo sees the impact of Playing to Live! growing. “The Ebola epidemic was a catalyst for the program, but we want to be able and ready to address any trauma to children in any part of the world,” she says. “From refugee camps to America’s inner cities, children are experiencing trauma every day, and we see creative art and play therapy being an important support mechanism for those children, their families, and their communities.”