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The Red Pencil: Healing through art therapy

We first met Belgian expat LAURENCE VANDENBORRE in 2015 when she introduced us to the work of The Red Pencil, the charity she founded to heal the emotional and psychological trauma of children and adults through art therapy. As the charity celebrates five years, we asked Laurence about the achievements to date, and what’s next.

The Red Pencil
Belgian expat Laurence Vandenborre

The Red Pencil has grown significantly since 2011; tell us how it started?

The inspiration grew from my overwhelming encounters with French-speaking patients, many of them children, who were treated in Singapore after the tsunami in 2004. With the aid of art therapy, the children recovered quickly from the trauma, which demonstrated and confirmed to me how powerful art therapy can be. In those circumstances I could see it was truly life changing.

It led me to decide to find a way to reach out to many more people; not only those I could see myself in my studio. The Red Pencil was founded in 2011 with the key mission to support children, adults and families in overwhelming situations for which they have no words to convey their pain – particularly those afflicted by long-term hospitalisation, disability and trauma.

Up until 2012 I worked independently but have since gathered a small team together and now we have a team of 12: seven in Singapore, two in Geneva, one in India, one in France, and one in Belgium. In 2013, I started The Red Pencil International and opened an office in Geneva; this was the springboard to commence work in natural disaster and conflict areas. This year we expect to open an office in Dubai.

The Red Pencil
Bonding and moving together; an example of work by participants

What would you say is the impact of The Red Pencil?

Art therapy is appropriate in any situation where people find it difficult to verbalise what they are going through and how they feel about it; it’s essentially an alternative way to express what they need to without words. As I experienced with the children after the tsunami, it is among young people where the impact is most apparent. I firmly believe in the power of art therapy to rebuild lives and create positive futures. To date, more than 12,000 people have received the direct benefits, along with their families and communities

What is the scope of art therapy in Singapore?

We operate in over 150 locations here: schools, hospitals, women’s shelters, orphanages and family centres dedicated to low-income families. We fund art therapists in these places – trained and paid therapists – because our intention is also to raise the professionalism and status of the field.

We deal with all kinds of unique and diverse circumstances, even children with illnesses who require hospitalisation for long periods. They are often overwhelmed as they don’t understand what is happening to them. The parents are often suffering too, and doctors take care of the child’s body but don’t have time to sit down and work with the emotions. Art therapists fill a gap and help the child adapt to the situation.

At the other end of the spectrum, art therapy can help the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, or for those navigating the end-of-life process – when dying peacefully is important. Art therapy is a way of finding personal reconciliation with your own life.

What about The Red Pencil missions that operate abroad?

The Red Pencil
Laurence with children following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, 2013

We have worked in international missions for four years to provide holistic psychosocial support in 23 countries. This happens in two ways: firstly, on the ground in partnership with local NGOs – for example, our first international mission in Cambodia, where we worked in a public hospital for five days; secondly, we work in partnership with global NGOs like World Vision, the Singapore Red Cross, and Save the Children. During a disaster situation, they take care of the human needs by feeding, clothing and housing people; we take care of the people’s emotions and psychological needs. To date, we’ve worked with 180 partner organisations across the globe, and we have more than 800 registered art therapists on our database.

We’re continually growing and challenging ourselves. Our first mission in a conflict zone was in a refugee camp in Lebanon on the Syrian border; and last December we were in Kurdistan, close to Iraq. Not only is the primary intervention important during these missions, but the train-the-trainer programmes are critical. Passing on the knowledge of art therapy allows the programmes we start to continue under the guidance of trained local people.

What, in your opinion, is the power of art?

Art can be a way to change your life. You can communicate, learn self-empowerment and self-confidence, and find healing through art. Art demonstrates that every situation can always be changed. In the same way that you can change a drawing,you can change something in your own life. Recently, we have extended the reach of our programme to include music, and movement or dance, as another creative expression of feeling.

We don’t talk about art in terms of aesthetics; this is purely art for therapy. There is no criteria or judgement and no one will tell you how to draw – that’s not the objective. You might improve, but that is not the aim; the aim is to express yourself and allow your inner self to talk through the drawing.

The Red Pencil
An art-therapy session in a rescue tent after the earthquake in Nepal, 2015

Is there a person who has had a particularly big impact on you and your work?

I will always remember the little girl who was in Singapore for treatment after the tsunami in 2004; she was the inspiration for The Red Pencil. She was about nine years old and on her way back to Belgium. When she left, she asked me for my name card, and in that moment I felt and saw so much strength in her eyes.

That was the turning point for me because I witnessed how powerful art therapy could be and that is why our motto is “rescue the child to save the adult”. If you tackle the situation as early as possible, you save the adult for tomorrow.

The Red Pencil in 2017

The organisation’s projects this year have included working with young girls and mothers to build resilience in Uganda, launching a pilot project in Belgium to work with asylum seekers who have faced incredible hardships, ground-breaking work in Latin America, and a project with the marginalised ethnic minority of Hmong people in Thailand.

For more information, visit redpencil.org.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!