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Teacher Brings Art Therapy to Recovering Addicts

Kali Gibbons sets out canvases and bright acrylic paints in the lunchroom at the Stella Maris recovery center on Monday afternoons. About a dozen men filter in, take a seat and grab a brush to paint.

“Knowing that art is something that can help others recover and it’s something that I can give to others, that’s why I do it,” she said.

Gibbons teaches art to school children four days a week. Monday is technically her day off, but she spends part of it at the Cleveland rehab center working with men battling addiction.

“There are people in my life who are personally affected by addiction,” she said before a recent session. “When someone says that ‘addiction is a ripple effect…’ there is so much truth to that.”

Gibbons knows the community faces an opioid crisis. She doesn’t have the answers how to end it, but she knows art is one tool to help make things better.

 “If I can help by giving my talent to them… it makes me feel like I’m doing something right,” she said.

The men at the Cleveland rehab center spend most of their days talking about their drug addiction. But all they have to do is paint during Gibbon’s art therapy sessions.

“I never thought I’d be doing this, but it’s actually pretty cool,” said Frank Petrovic, while painting a bright orange background above the outline of a pit bull.

Gibbons asks the men to paint colorful backgrounds that surround black-and-white animal portraits she paints.    

“I figured who couldn’t relate to animals,” she said.

Participant Justin Andrew Klann says he most identifies with the wolf.

“During my struggles I became very lone, like a lone wolf,” he said.

But Klann also said he feels like a “pack animal,” because he loves being around family and the guys at Stella Maris.

Together Gibbons and the men have painted several animals, including a shark, lion, butterfly, owl and gorilla. She shares pictures of the works in progress on Instagram. The finished paintings will be auctioned off at a fundraiser this June, which is also when Gibbons plans to take a break. She said her plan is to return in the fall.

The recovery center never had art therapy until Gibbons volunteered to do a program, according to Stella Maris Clinical Director Terry Luria.  

“It’s such a great mode of self-expression,” Luria said. “We’re very impressed, very touched by the work that she’s doing with them.”

For participants, like Tracy Rivera, the art provides a different outlet.

“I’m learning to be able to express myself and get positive feelings instead of using drugs and alcohol,” he said.

Gibbons says she gets just as much- or more- out of leading art therapy.

“At the end of the day they’re here because they want to be better, and there is nothing cooler than that,” she said.  “What they are teaching me is to just love: Give your love and don’t judge others.”

Need to speak with someone about opioid addiction? Connect with area agencies.


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