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Bringing Art to Cadets: Art Therapy at Quasi-Military Academy for Teens

As I write this, day two of Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy’s 45th class is coming to a close. Approximately 150 teenagers accepted the challenge to attend this 17 and a half month, quasi-military program. Cadets will spend twenty-two weeks in residence during which time they will be introduced to a vigorous routine of education, life skills, and physical fitness. After graduating the Residential Phase, cadets will complete a 12 month Post-Residential Phase back in their communities, keeping in touch with career counselors and mentors to assess progress and address any budding issues or


If you asked me what population I envisioned working with when I graduated from EVMS’ Graduate Art Therapy and Counseling Program in 2010, adolescents would not have been my first choice. Further, if you had told the recent graduate version of myself that I’d end up working in a military-style academy, I probably would have laughed. Alas, here I am! It’s been a wonderful journey that began with a personal challenge – accepting a job as an Art Therapist at a juvenile detention center in Northern Virginia soon after graduation. When the position arose not only did it offer the coveted title of Art Therapist, but it also offered an opportunity to hone my group Art Therapy skills and work with a population that I considered the most challenging for me.

During the three years I worked at JDC, I observed many teens return over and over again. I wanted to develop an Art Therapy program providing preventative services for teens before they became repeat offenders. The mission of CCYA is to intervene in the lives of 16-18 year old teenagers by providing the values, skills, education, and self-discipline needed to produce responsible, productive citizens, and to do so in a highly structured learning environment. When a position opened up in CCYA’s Counseling Department in November 2013, I jumped at the chance to develop an Art Therapy program embracing this mission.

The Counseling Department at CCYA has blossomed. In 2013 I joined forces with one Social Worker. Today, we have two Social Workers and two Art Therapists on staff and dedicated to our mission. Art Therapy at CCYA focuses on fostering self awareness and positive coping skills within a structured, creative environment. Cadets have an opportunity to participate in individual and group Art Therapy during the Residential Phase, and they also complete a Life Coping Skills curriculum. This psychoeducational course meets on a weekly basis and includes an Art Therapy component when instructed by an Art Therapist.

The quasi-military aspect of CCYA was daunting at first, but I have found the structure, routine, and dedication of CCYA staff beneficial for the young men and women who enter the program. Art Therapy compliments the mission of the program, offering a welcome outlet for addressing emotional needs and fostering behavior modification. The highlight of my work comes on graduation day, when Cadets who may have been struggling on day two of the program walk with confidence and a beaming smile having achieved a new sense of self-worth on day 147.

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