By J.D. Moor

Susan Anderson founded the ArtReach Foundation in 1999, which provides therapy to victims of violence and other trauma by involving them in the creative arts. She says her own past helped guide her in establishing the organization. The nonprofit has worked with more than 400,000 trauma victims around the world.

During the Korean War, Susan Anderson’s dad witnessed horrors.

Orphanages were bombed near his medical unit, she said, and he had to help with the rescue and recovery of the children’s bodies.

He came home a changed man.

“He was filled with a lot of hate and a lot of guilt,” Anderson said.

She now realizes how her family’s ordeal with her father and his problems shaped her calling to create the ArtReach Foundation.

ArtReach, which Anderson founded in 1999, provides therapy to victims of violence and other trauma by getting them involved in the creative arts.

The group’s website says it “uses the imagination, group process, art, drama, music, dance and movement, creative writing and meditation/visualization to create an integrated approach to promote healing, optimum development and socialization.”

The nonprofit has worked with more than 400,000 trauma victims around the world — people who, left untreated, could resort to harming themselves or others, Anderson said.

Led by trained clinicians, members gather in “safe places” to support each other and to heal while collaborating in creative arts.

Anderson, who lives in Buckhead, followed a circuitous path before creating ArtReach in 1999 and becoming its CEO.

Rewind to the late 1970s: Anderson coped with divorce by enrolling in the Atlanta College of Art. A course in art therapy showed her how making and using an image can release feelings suppressed by emotional and physical trauma.

“That’s when I knew I had intuitively sought a form of self-help,” she said.

Anderson became an agent for struggling and starving artists, learning even more about their pain and appreciating how it fed their creativity.

ArtReach was born when Anderson felt compelled to help victims of the war in Bosnia. Soon, it expanded to Jordan, Lebanon and then, after Hurricane Katrina, to the United States.

“But I always kept a comfortable distance from my own childhood trauma until a retired major general told me the VA [Veterans Administration] would have its hands full with war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.

In 2009, ArtReach’s Project America began to address post-traumatic stress disorder in returning servicemen and servicewomen, and in military families.

“Finally getting in touch with my own personal story gave me an authentic connection to the work,” Anderson said.

BriGette McCoy is a single mom of two daughters who served in the U.S. Army from 1987 through 1991.

While based in Germany, she was raped off-post, she said. She later suffered brain and back injuries in a fall while on patrol. The VA told her she was fine after her discharge, she said, though she didn’t feel fine.

“I experienced anger and depression. I had risky eating and drinking habits,” she said.

It wasn’t until after she joined ArtReach that she was able to address her trauma. McCoy was buoyed by her very first session, in the spring of 2012.

“We drew, we painted, we wrote a play. It was very profound,” she beamed. Nowadays, if she feels triggered, she goes back to that time and remembers the freedom she felt with the others in her group. “I find my center again and I paint on my own now. I do still struggle with anxiety and eating, but I am more confident in my life,” she said.

McCoy is training to facilitate future ArtReach sessions. For her, it’s a way of giving back and paying forward. “ArtReach is like family. I just feel better there,” she said.

Karen McCarty is a Buckhead-based family therapist and ArtReach trainer who first worked with McCoy. “She is a force who has survived challenges I can only imagine,” McCarty said. “She, like the other vets, helps us learn where we need to change our training. She teaches us how to do a better job.”

Susan Anderson’s hope is for brain research to actually prove how a model like ArtReach can make a difference.

“Just imagine how much more the arts would be embraced in treatment,” she said. “I know that art changes lives.”

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