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The Art of Sobriety: Nonprofit helps teens, young adults creatively battle addiction

An artist with Hope Creates makes a piece at a community creation event in Overland. [Hope Creates photo]

Trading drugs and alcohol for paintbrushes and musical instruments – that’s what one local organization is encouraging in its fight to stem the tide of teenage substance abuse and self-harm.

Kathie Thomas, a Chesterfield resident and innovation business consultant, is the founder and president of Hope Creates. The nonprofit arts program was created to help local teens and young adults sustain sobriety and recovery by providing them with creative opportunities, including painting, improvisational theater, tie-dye, pottery, fiber artistry, music and more.

“If you’re going to take drugs, cutting or alcohol away from a kid, and that’s the only thing that made them feel like they had any control over their life or their world or their pain, then you have to give them something back,” Thomas said.

Through Hope Creates, teens and young adults create original works of art, receive one-on-one coaching and then participate in gallery shows and concerts across the community. Recently, the nonprofit held its third annual “Don’t Quit Before The Miracle: An Expressive Arts Exhibition” on Oct. 21 at .ZACK, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s multi-use arts facility.

Each participant must be one year sober to showcase their work – though they can participate in creation events at any time during their sobriety. Pieces at the exhibition are priced for individual sale with the funds going toward future Hope Creates events.

“It’s a program that gives kids experience as both artists and entrepreneurs,” Thomas said. “It pretty much pays for itself, but the goal isn’t so much the revenue generation as it is the programming, the experiences and the realizations of self-worth, value and a sense of pride.”

The positive feedback doesn’t just come from exhibition attendees.

Musician and artist Adam D. returned to the St. Louis area from Colorado when he was about three months sober. He originally participated in the creation of physical art but now he plays music and has performed concerts at multiple Hope Creates events. Most recently, he played original music at a 2018 National Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse [NCADA] event in which Hopes Creates participated.

“With getting sober, the biggest thing is that if you’re not having more fun being sober than you were when you were using, you’re usually not going to stay sober, and that’s what Hope Creates has really done for me,” Adam said. “It’s given me a place to express my music, and have a place and outlet for that. It’s been really cool because, for my entire life, I’ve wanted to do something with my music. Now, I’m getting more and more opportunities with Hope Creates, and at the same time, helping to support the sober community.”

According to Thomas, 36 artists participated in the 2019 exhibition. She said their stories are “tremendous.”

“Grandmothers were there saying, ‘I’m so proud of my grandson, and all these kids,’” Thomas shared. “One young man said he never thought he’d be good at photography, because he was into sports, and then once he got into drugs, all he cared about was drugs. Now, he’s a photographer and a painter and really thriving.”

To provide structured time in which the artists create their art pieces, practice music and prepare for upcoming exhibitions, Hope Creates hosts community creation events. The program had 17 creation events and six gallery exhibitions last year and also provided recovery community art projects, art creation workshop opportunities, dedicated studio time, internships and mentoring programs for expressive arts and entrepreneurialism.

Lexy A., who has been sober since October 2015, has been involved with Hope Creates for about a year. She heard about the program in one of her art classes at her school, where she is majoring in environmental science and minoring in ceramic pottery.

“Ever since then, I’ve been going to the community creation events,” Lexy said. “I’ve even been able to hold a leadership role in teaching one of the community creation events and served as a summer intern for the organization.

“I was able to start learning the business side of a nonprofit entity and really just help out with setting up these exhibits and kind of being a facilitator of, basically, a nonprofit that runs on donations, setting up a database in order to reach out to people, things like that,” she said of her internship.

Pieces from the “Don’t Quit Before The Miracle: An Expressive Arts Exhibition” in 2017 at .ZACK [Hope Creates photo]

Creating hope
“It’s personal,” Thomas said of her desire to found Hope Creates. “One of my kids is a recovering addict.”
During those helpless days of her daughter’s addiction, Thomas turned toward art as a coping mechanism for herself; later, she saw the benefits of it for others.

“I’m a graphic designer and innovation consultant, so art is part of who I am,” Thomas said. “I turned to it. I started making large, black and white landscapes or abstract collages just to vent and to feel like I had control over something. It was therapeutic, it was meditative, and at the end, there was something beautiful that was some kind of expression of what I was feeling – but it wasn’t toxic anymore.

“Creation, literally, is the opposite of self-destruction … creation can be clean and sober and enjoyable.”

Most of the artists in the Hope Creates program agree with Thomas. The program has a 93-percent success rate compared to a national success rate of 15 percent for similar programs. Thomas credits both the process of creating something meaningful and the support of the community.

“You can’t stay sober alone,” Lexy said. “Isolation is what takes us back out there into wanting to drink and use because we don’t feel like we’re a part of something. With Hopes Creates, we do feel like we’re part of something. And in having that cohesive network, there’s always somebody I can turn to, and I feel comfortable talking about my problems to these people.”

According to the NCADA, a record-breaking 760 people died as the result of opioid abuse in the St. Louis region in 2017.

“People don’t know that in 2016 we lost more people than we lost in the 10-year Vietnam War,” Thomas said of opioid deaths. “People don’t know that in 2017 we lost 24 times the number of people we lost on 9/11, for which we went to war. This year, we’re going to lose 76,600 people or more; we could fill the [Enterprise Center] four times with the bodies.

“We lose two [people] in St. Louis every single day, and we lose 200 in the United States every single day … The community needs to know.”

Lexy said the goal of Hope Creates events is to create a mind-shift about the stigma of addiction.

“The stigma about people suffering from addiction is that they’re on the fringe of society and that they don’t have anything else to offer. Unless someone has somebody who is close to them who is dealing with such a thing, most people view it as ‘they have nothing to offer,’” Lexy said. “I think because we have these galleries and we are showing these beautiful pieces of art and we’re able to tell people our stories, that definitely induces a mind shift and changes the way the community views people like us.”

“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety,” Thomas said. “Sobriety is a necessity … The opposite of addiction is community. If you feel that you are connected to people who will give you unconditional love and accountability, and really get you and care about you, don’t enable you and really support you, that is what makes sobriety stick in most cases.”

For more information or to donate to Hope Creates, visit hopecreates.org.

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