Brett Batterson on how the performing arts can help heal a child’s grief
By BRETT BATTERSON June 9, 2013 11:41PM
Updated: June 10, 2013 10:08AM
On a bright, sunny June day when I was 7 years old, I received news that would change my life forever. I was playing on the front stoop of a neighbor’s house when a big, black car pulled up in front. Out stepped two men who proceeded to inform my mother, my two brothers and me that my father had suffered a sudden heart attack and was dead. He was 30 years old. So was my mother.
This is a story that can be told by countless children on a daily basis in America. Parents die and children are left fatherless or motherless. While this loss always leads to confusion, hurt and sadness in the children it affects, it can also lead to much worse symptoms like depression, aggression and feelings of unworthiness.
Luckily, I had an outlet that allowed me to channel my grief into a positive, healing direction: my involvement in the performing arts. The healing power of creative play gave me the confidence to express myself, the essential support of friendship I needed and an outlet for my sadness.
As I got older and found myself in a position to do so, I decided I wanted to give children who had lost a parent the same benefits I had participating in the performing arts. That’s why I started “Hands Together, Heart to Art” nine summers ago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. This one-of-a-kind, award-winning day camp has helped more than 700 children who have experienced tragic loss heal through participation in music, theatre and dance. In addition, the camp provides access to healing counselors and caring, trained adults who guide the children through their camp days.
Let me tell you the story of one camper named Peter. Peter and his father were very close and spent a lot of time together, going to Sox games and fishing for bream in their favorite pond in the suburbs. But one day, Peter’s father was stopped by the police for a routine traffic violation. Peter’s father reached into his pocket for his cell phone and the police thought he was going for a gun. They shot him dead.
Peter came to us a broken young man, and said to us, “I don’t know how I can go on.” We worried about Peter. We worked with Peter. He found his place in dance class. He talked to the healing counselors. And he heard other kids’ stories and found out he wasn’t alone.
Peter returned to camp for three straight years and gained more confidence every year. He has become a fine young man with plans to attend college after he graduates high school. He asked me if I would write him a letter of recommendation for his application when the time comes. I was happy to say yes.
We have seen dozens of Peters at camp. It is their stories that drive us. And it is their growth as individuals that inspire us. It has been an enormously gratifying experience for me to know that these children are growing better thanks to our help, and that their stories may one day turn out to be as happy as my own, despite the shared loss we all experienced.
We have two camp sessions this July. All children are welcome; we have never turned a child away because of an inability to pay. This camp is for children who need it, not just for those who can afford it.
If you know of a child between the ages of 7 and 14 who would benefit from “Hands Together, Heart to Art,” please call (312) 341-2353 or visit Auditoriumtheatre.org. Your call could make all the difference in the course of a life for a young person who has experienced this all-too-common tragic loss.