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Mercyhurst, HYS partner on new Therapeutic Arts Initiative

Monday, November 2, 2015

Being "on the same wavelength,” “being in tune,” “feeling off key” – these are not merely metaphorical expressions, but represent our deep emotional connection to music.

That connection is at the heart of a new partnership between Mercyhurst University and Harborcreek Youth Services (HYS) called the “Therapeutic Arts Initiative.” Through the use of expressive therapies like music, art and movement, the program aims to help Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable youth – those who are victims of abuse, neglect and childhood trauma.

The music therapy program is currently being piloted at HYS; art and movement therapies are expected to follow sometime next year.

“Over the years, Mercyhurst has had many successful collaborations with Harborcreek Youth Services,” said university President Michael T. Victor. “Our criminal justice students, for instance, have interned and volunteered at the agency. We believe this latest collaboration, which is altogether consistent with our mission, will help these young people to achieve the healing they so desperately need.”

HYS CEO John Petulla said his agency has been working on establishing the program for nearly 20 months, raising $456,000 of its $636,000 goal during the silent phase of its fundraising campaign. On Tuesday, Nov. 3, HYS is expected to receive a $15,000 grant from the Erie Community Foundation for its “Therapeutic Music Initiative in collaboration with Mercyhurst University,”  which is being matched by the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, bringing the total grant allocation to $30,000.

Petulla said the next step is to reach out to the public for their support. The funds would be used to build an addition off the small gymnasium at the HYS facility at 5712 Iroquois Ave. in Harborcreek to accommodate the expansion of the Therapeutic Arts Initiative.

For the past month, Mercyhurst University music therapy program director Craig Stevens and Mercyhurst music therapy graduate Sam Krahe have been working with 13 HYS residents to break through communication barriers resulting from the trauma they have suffered.

“Trauma has been called ‘the great thief,’’’ Stevens said. “Most of these young people have extreme difficulty trusting and connecting with another person, most have never experienced unconditional love, and because of their experiences, live in a world that does not feel safe. We are now looking at how early childhood traumas can affect not only psychological health, but also physical health, neurodevelopment, and virtually every other aspect of a functional life. Through music therapy techniques combined with counseling, we are able to address goal areas such as self-esteem, self-worth, emotional expression and social skills development."

Research shows that music therapy is effective at reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation, verbalization, interpersonal relationships and group cohesiveness. This can set the stage for open communication and provide a starting place for non-threatening support and processing symptoms associated with trauma.

In just a few short weeks, the pilot program has generated a high level of interest among the residents, some of whom are actually requesting to be part of it, rather than wait for a therapist to refer them, Stevens said.

“We are really excited about that,” he added. “Music therapy is a research-based and goal-directed healthcare field in which a board-certified music therapist helps the client improve, maintain, or restore a state of well-being, using musical experiences and the relationships that develop through them as dynamic forces of change. At HYS, we are engaging the residents in an intensive 12-week program that includes original songwriting, musical composition and production, improvisation, music relaxation techniques and counseling."

With the expansion of the HYS facilities, Petulla said he intends to work with Mercyhurst to integrate interpretive therapies in art and movement next. Besides Stevens, other Mercyhurst faculty involved in planning the program are Jodi Staniunas-Hopper, chair of the art department; and Mary Elizabeth Meier, art education program director. Maria Garase, who chairs Mercyhurst’s criminal justice department, has also been engaged in the planning. Practicum students are providing assistance as well.

“We expect good outcomes from these programs and are grateful to Mercyhurst for their support,” Petulla said. “What we are hearing from the kids so far is very encouraging, but we definitely need more space to expand these therapies.”

PHOTO: Craig Stevens in music therapy class at Mercyhurst.