The walls of Preferred Family Healthcare’s office in Union are lined with artwork that is as eye-catching as it is thought-provoking.

There are no names with the pieces. Recognition is not their purpose.

It’s recovery.

“This one is called The Ripple Effect,” said Megan Smith, BA, RASAC II (Recognized Associate Substance Abuse Counselor II).

“We talk about decision making and how their decisions may affect other people,” she explained. “So when you’re making a choice, it’s not just you that it affects, it’s all of these things. Once they kind of see it in that perspective, they kind of get it.

“It’s to show them that, you made this decision, and look at all the bad things that happened. So when you make choices, be mindful.

“This is another before and after,” Smith continued, gesturing to a painting that featured dark colors with words like “chaos,” “fighting,” “hate” and “abuse” on one side and light colors and words like “peace,” “sober,” “family” and “love” on the other.

“This person had some substance abuse issues, but also some family things going on at home,” Smith commented. “This is how things were in her home and her life beforehand. And when she came back from residential, this is how she was.”

The artwork tugs at your heartstrings, even more so when you realize it was created by children — middle- and high-school students in the agency’s ART-C program.

ART-C, which stands for Achieving Recovery Through Creativity, is one of the programs supported by the Franklin County Community Resource Board, which allocates funds from a quarter-cent sales tax to organizations that help children with various needs, such as substance abuse, pregnancy and mental health problems.

Designed for youth who are experiencing high-risk situations, ART-C’s clients have a wide spectrum of needs, said program founder and director Kasey Harlin, MA, CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor), CCDP-D (Certified Co-occurring Disorders Professional-Diplomat).

The needs range from issues at school, like bullying, to family discord at home to substances abuse to mental health issues. The program has also worked with kids on the autism spectrum, said Harlin.

Clients are referred to the program by their parents, schools, juvenile officers, counselors and doctors. They come from all over Franklin County, and as long as they are Franklin County residents, the grant money from FCCRB funds their treatment, said Harlin. No insurance is necessary.

Between 100 and 150 children per year participate in the ART-C program in Union, said Harlin. That includes those in individual therapy and groups.

The ART-C specialists can meet with their clients anywhere — the office in Union, in school (depending on their schedule), after school, at their home or elsewhere.

Sessions can last anywhere from one to two hours and frequency depends on the needs of the client.

Incredibly Successful

Preferred Family Healthcare, a nonprofit behavioral health organization that provides substance abuse treatment, prevention and mental health services throughout Missouri and Kansas, began offering the ART-C program at its office in Union in 2009.

Currently it is the agency’s only stand-alone ART-C program, said Harlin, who created the program as a way to encourage children to give the therapy process a chance.

“A lot of times, kids in counseling grumble and say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ ” said Harlin. “This program is designed to retain and engage them. By doing it with something that they like already or are interested in doing, it’s really taking counseling in the back door.

“I remember when I started as a therapist, confrontation was the way to go,” said Harlin. “Confront the behavior.

“But when you back people into a corner, they come out fighting, and what I realized very quickly was that I needed to find a way to engage these kids that is not so scary and not so forceful. So that is where ART-C was born, out of a pragmatic need to engage kids at a level where they wanted to come.”

Initially ART-C was only offered as an integrated part of Preferred Family Healthcare’s adolescent substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. Yet the program was so successful that it was expanded to use with adult substance abuse and adult mental illness.

And when the FCCRB was created, that offered another opportunity to try something different, said Harlin, to create a stand-alone ART-C program for at-risk adolescents in Franklin County, to help them before they get into trouble.

“And it has proven to be incredibly successful,” Harlin remarked. “Actually we are looking at the possibility of replicating it in some of the larger counties that we’ve expanded to.”

The ART-C program here is designed “as an alternative for youth who may have tried other interventions that weren’t necessarily as successful as those agencies would have liked them to be,” said Harlin.

“So it’s really a supplemental service that allows us to focus on strengths and interests and span learning styles.”

The program measures success using the Development Assets Profile Checklist along with an internally developed outcomes instrument, said Harlin, explaining that the Developmental Assets® are 40 research-based, positive qualities that influence young people’s development, helping them become caring, responsible and productive adults.

Overall, ART-C has a success rate of 90 to 100 percent in three key areas — improvement in at least one life area, engagement in at least one positive activity (outside of ART-C) and experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

The program has expanded since it was introduced here in 2009, when Smith was the only staff member. Currently the need is such that beginning this month, Jill McClain, BA, who was brought on as a part-time specialist, will now be employed full time.

More Than Visual Arts

The artwork hanging in the office is only one style of art that the clients create. There’s also photography, musical instruments and recording equipment.

“One group recently focused on videography,” said Harlin, noting that the clients were contracted through FCCRB and the Franklin County Opioid Collaborative to create public service announcements focused on prescription drug abuse.

Working as a group, clients created a series of five PSAs which are posted on YouTube under the heading “Prevent the Zombie Apocalypse.” Kids who do drugs walk around looking like zombies with skin discolored and falling off, particularly on their faces.

“Really our goal is to engage at whatever interest or strength a young person comes in with,” said Harlin.

“If they come in and want to do cake decorating — and we had one person who did — we will figure out how to incorporate that into their overall treatment plan.

“The idea behind it is to make counseling less threatening and more engaging by taking it in with an interest and a strength,” she explained.

Clients are exposed to a little bit of everything in the program. Sometimes there are assigned projects, said Smith, but other times they can select the medium they want to use.

‘It Makes Me Less Stressed’

Brothers Trey, 16, and Logan, 12, of Washington, said the ART-C program has helped them stay on the right path. Trey was in eighth grade when he began coming to ART-C after trying another intervention program that didn’t work for him.

He was fighting a lot at home with his family and having suicidal thoughts.

Trey said before joining the program, he had never used art to express himself, but it has made a major difference in his life.

He no longer has suicidal thoughts and doesn’t fight with his parents as much.

“So far, I’m on a good track,” he remarked with a smile.

Initially Trey came to the Preferred Family Healthcare office once a week, but now that things are better, he only comes once a month.

Trey’s preferred art style is music. He is a self-taught piano player. But recently he worked with his brother on building a castle out of boxes. They wrapped it plaster and even painted it.

Now it’s at home where they can see it every day.

Logan smiles as he talks about their castle. He started coming to ART-C because of issues with fighting at home.

It’s not unusual to have siblings in the program, said Harlin, although they often work with different counselors.

“One thing we have determined with youth in general is when there are concerns with one member of the family, it bleeds over,” said Harlin.

“It could just be the other sibling’s reaction to what is going on that puts them at risk. So it’s really important that we provide help for everyone in the family that is in need of it.”

Logan, whose art preference is building things, said the reason he likes being in the ART-C program is “when I do art and things, it makes me less stressed.”

Trey agreed. “It takes my mind off of things,” he commented.

Harlin said that’s not a coincidence. There is science behind it.

“There are tons of studies out there that identify the way that art impacts neurotransmitters and adrenaline and things like that,” she commented.

“Just like music, art triggers parts of your brain that calm stress and calm anger.

“There are kids who respond incredibly well to talk therapy, and that is enough. A lot of it has to do with learning style. Some kids are not just auditory learners or visual learners — they are kinesthetic learners. And so when you have them combine all of those learning styles into the message you’re trying to get to them, they retain it better. And they can focus on it better.”

Program Length Varies

There is no set length of time for a client to be in the ART-C program.

“We decide together when clients are ready to stop participating,” said Smith. “They all have treatment goals.”

“It’s very, very individualized,” added Harlin. “For some kids it’s not an intervention program as much as a maintenance program . . . It helps them maintain the positive changes they have made.

“But for some kids it’s an intervention program, and once that change has been made, they’re discharged and are done. They can come back if they need to, but really it is very much based on the individual consumer and the progress that they’ve made, and conversations with the referral source and their parents.

“We have had kids involved for two-plus years and other kids for only 12 weeks,” said Harlin.

The program is designed for middle- and high-school students, although there have been a few younger students enrolled.

“We have worked with some elementary children and we will depending on the issues that they are presenting with,” said Harlin.

“There are some play therapists and other agencies that are better suited to work with younger kids that are presenting with more serious issues.”

ART-C is designed to work with other agencies within the community, to have joint clients, Harlin noted. For example, another agency may call with a request to enroll a client in the ART-C program as well to advance their progress.

“Then we work together. We have regular communication with that agency, and we become partners essentially in their care,” said Harlin. “Really the program is designed to work well with other intervention strategies and, with that, the key is communication.

“As long as we have open communication, continuity of care is done well.”

Soberpalooza, Camps

The FCCRB also provides funding for community events like Soberpalooza and specialized camps. The program has sponsored music and art camps, as well as a social entrepreneurship camp where kids designed their own businesses and products.

“We want to reach kids who aren’t our individual clients, but provide the opportunity for other kids in the community.

Those events are promoted through stories in the newspaper, local schools and other agencies.

Soberpalooza is held annually in April. The event used to be designed so teens came to one central location, but now multiple events are held in conjunction with the schools.

“After school we set up a carnival with a huge art contest, a talent show, carnival games all focused on positive choices and prevention and how to stay drug free,” said Harlin.

Seeking Mentors

As successful as ART-C is currently, Harlin is hoping to add another component to it — mentors.

She is looking for artists and musicians in the community to volunteer with the program, either by coming in to teach clients or inviting them to their studio for a tour or something.

“That’s a piece that I’m trying to develop agency-wide,”said Harlin. “I really think it’s important because we do the counseling piece, and we tap into their talents, but a lot of the kids want to learn.

“We had a music camp, and we brought people in who taught them, and the kids were really, really excited about that.”

Artists or musicians who want to get involved can contact Smith at the Union office, 636-584-8724.