From art therapy student to nonprofit founder

By Alexis Decosimo 14 April 2015

Alexis Decosimo, founder of Playing to Live! Photo by: Personal collection

In the summer of 2014, I found myself in helpless tears as I watched a country I loved succumb to the trauma of an Ebola epidemic.

In 2012, I lived and worked as a local girl’s club co-creator and organizer in Yekepa, Liberia and visited Monrovia on numerous occasions to gather ideas from other organizations. In order to create a successful and culturally appropriate girl’s club, I spent a lot of time gathering information on Liberia’s culture, art scene and history.

While I watched the news from my home in the U.S., I could vividly picture the extreme chaos and fear that was overtaking the same streets and alleys that I had, only two years before, danced and played along with my young Liberian comrades.

Having recently graduated from George Washington University’s master’s in art therapy program with a focus on trauma and international work, I began analyzing and predicting the extreme emotional and psychological impact this situation was going to have on the children of Liberia.

Research shows that if childhood trauma is not successfully intervened with psychosocial support, it affects all aspects of a child’s well being and future development. With this combined understanding of trauma, expressive arts therapy and Liberia, it didn’t take me too long before I couldn’t sit idle any longer.

Action

By October, I began to evaluate what I had at my disposal. I had recently begun my three-year doctoral program for public health at East Tennessee State University, was an art therapist, and had a unique perspective and connection to Liberia.

I called an old colleague who had lived in Liberia for two years and shared my ideas. Within two weeks of that crucial call, Jessi Hanson was on a plane to Monrovia equipped solely with my idea of building an emergency therapeutic-based expressive arts program for children most affected by Ebola, our mutual connections to the country, her incredible strengths in program development and our shared passion for the children of Liberia.

During Jessi’s one-month stay, we built a successful program, which was first implemented in a children’s isolation center through the guidance of Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare.

The program trained female Ebola survivors to use culturally adapted expressive art therapy techniques to help support children in 21-day isolation through activities that build healthy relationships, explore resiliency and hope, help children express emotions and grief and provide a safe place for children to laugh and heal.

Six months and $3,000 later

Within six months — and with $3,000 in donations — the organization and nonprofit dubbed Playing to Live! was successfully working with children who have survived or have been orphaned by Ebola.

After our initial program in the isolation center, Playing to Live! hired and trained two female staff, one of whom is an Ebola survivor herself. The staff works in communities two to three times a week with large populations of children most highly affected by Ebola. Due to our speedy development, we as an organization are still developing outreach and fundraising strategies, so we have learned to stretch every dollar donation.

We hit a niche, and I still cannot believe the amount of impact and success we have had.

Playing to live

A child plays outside in Liberia as part of Playing to Live's program. Photo by: Playing to Live

The background and foundation of Playing to Live! has been my personal career goal for many years, though I didn’t anticipate that it would happen when it has.

In six short months, Playing to Live! has grown and matured into a global organization. We have built our focus on providing an expressive arts program meant to be adapted to each culture in which it’s used. Through our work and evaluations in Liberia, the clinical team has quickly begun to build the foundation for this global reach, and we are excited about our second country implementation in South Africa this summer, where I will be spending nine weeks through a partnership with a local organization and my doctoral work.

The clinical team creates activities that support healthy relationship building, creating safe places, target resiliency and build a space for trauma healing from their respected professions — currently yoga therapy, art therapy, play therapy and child life. The activities are stored in an “activity database” but are adapted by local community members to create relevance and significance.

We work with closely with local organizations to continue to build programs, and our activities are currently performed through training non-clinical community leaders in how to support children experiencing trauma. We follow the progress of the programs through evaluation and weekly updates from the local staff, and we are overwhelmed with the current excitement from Liberia and now South Africa.

Six months later

Six months feels like a lifetime.There are times when reality hits me, and I can’t believe the amount of progress and success that has come from Playing to Live! It has been by far the hardest journey I have taken thus far, and I realize that it’s because this work is my heart and soul. When it hurts, I hurt, and when there are days where everything seems to fall into place, I feel my heart sing.

I have gone from being a new art therapy graduate to a doctoral student, and now to a business woman in the nonprofit world. The fact is, though, that I continue to be amazed at the incredible difference art expression and play can have on a person in trauma.

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About the author

Unnamed
Alexis Decosimo

Alexis Decosimo is the founder and executive director of Playing to Live! She received her master's in art therapy and clinical counseling at George Washington University and is currently working as an art therapist in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as pursuing her doctorate in public health at Eastern Tennessee State University. She specializes in trauma informed art therapy, program development and international work.


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