Pandemic stress? RI’s PeaceLove Studios expands its arts program

PAWTUCKET — From humble beginnings more than a decade ago, PeaceLove Studios co-founders Jeff Sparr and Matthew Kaplan had taken their mental health programs to the world stage when the pandemic brought the planet to its knees.

Shortly before, Kaplan and Sparr, an artist with mental illness, were in Switzerland at the World Economic Forum in Davos. There they explained the power of expressive arts such as painting and papercraft to improve emotional well-being.

“I was on a stage challenging world leaders to take this seriously,” Sparr told the Journal last week.

An outlet through art: Creative expression is at the heart of innovative PeaceLove studios

And then Sparr and Kaplan were back in Rhode Island, wondering how PeaceLove would survive during COVID.

Until the pandemic, most of their efforts had been focused on their studio inside the Hope Artist Village, an annual storytelling day at Rhode Island College that has drawn hundreds of people and community programs to dozens of locations. ‘States and in Canada managed by health professionals and other professionals trained by PeaceLove. The organization calls them “creators”.

COVID proved to be overwhelming.

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PeaceLove Studios founders Matt Kaplan, left, and Jeff Sparr offered Scribl as an online way to keep their arts programs going during the pandemic.  Kaplan says: "There was tons of burnout, tons of anxiety, tons of fear, and we said, “We have to step in.  We have to help our people.

During the early days of lockdown, “the first thing we did was make sure our network of ‘creators’ was empowered, connected and supported,” Kaplan said. “A lot of these people are in the behavioral health space, the child life specialist space, the nurses, the social workers. They were still doing the work – but there was tons of burnout, tons of anxiety, tons of fear, and we said, “We have to step in. We have to help our people.”

Unable to accomplish this in person, PeaceLove began offering online workshops “taking advantage of Zoom and some of the other platforms, and while it wasn’t perfect, the connections we could have were pretty amazing and quite powerful,” Kaplan said.

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With refinements, the workshops evolved into sessions called Scriblwhich are now offered virtually as well as in person.

“Scribl makes simple creative activities to feel better a little easier and a little more fun,” PeaceLove says on its website. “With Scribl, people don’t need words. Or gurus. Or demanding routines. Team members will release stress and worries with markers, string, and glue. stuff with construction paper. Or paint their old shoes. They’ll write down their feelings to make room for others.

Badges of past PeaceLove workshop participants taped to a locker door show their name and answer to the question: "What gives you peace of mind?"

Growing support from businesses and an “ideathon”

By the time Kaplan and Sparr appeared in Davos, PeaceLove had received support from CVS Health, the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, Hilton, Ben & Jerry’s and other companies, some of which offered PeaceLove programs for their employees. It has found support from biopharmaceutical company Corium, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Eyemart Express.

“We help foster employee mental well-being using creativity and expression through our partnership with PeaceLove,” said Michael Bender, President and CEO of Eyemart Express. “Everyone in our company has access to Scribl workshops that promote self-care, reduce stress, and connect with others.”

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An in-person Scribl workshop at PeaceLove Studios.  Online Scribl activities are now being offered to employees of select PeaceLove corporate sponsors to help ease pandemic-related anxiety and burnout.

2021 has seen interest from two other big companies: Amazon Web Services and Hasbro, headquartered in Pawtucket. During Hasbro’s annual Global Day of Joy, employees participated in brainstorming sessions – a so-called “ideathon” – aimed at finding the best ways for the toy company and Amazon to offer the PeaceLove programs to mass audiences.

“PeaceLove has been selected as a special beneficiary of Hasbro’s Global Day of Joy, the annual company-wide day of service, where Hasbro and Amazon Web Services have partnered to launch an ‘ideathon’ to amplify the work of PeaceLove,” Kaplan said. “The expected results will have a positive impact on the emotional well-being of children and adults around the world.”

Details of the partnership are being finalized, with an announcement expected soon on the plans.

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Sparr, who was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder after graduating from Ohio State University in 1985, spoke during the interview about the effects of the pandemic on his health. Like many other people with mental illness — and many who aren’t — COVID has taken its toll.

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“A pandemic is not a good prescription for health,” Sparr said. “Everything I do all day, every day, is difficult for my illness, whether it’s living with ambiguity, asking for things, pressure, tension, anxiety, lack of sleep. You name it, it comes to me in spades.

And yet, he said, “in many ways it intensified and made me better.”

“I think you’re also forgetting the fact that you’ve probably painted more in the last two years, creating more than ever,” Kaplan said. “That’s probably why you thrive. »

Sparr agreed.

Jeff Sparr, who turned to painting to relieve symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, speaks at the 2019 PeaceLove Studios Storytelling Day at Rhode Island College.

“A creative explosion” during the pandemic

“I had a creative blast,” he said. “I’ve never created more in my entire life in any way. … We have to use my art so that we can reach people and bring energy in every way. So it turned out for the better. I don’t talk out of both sides of my mouth. Like the hairdressing club, I am a member too!

With the delta and omicron surges abating, studio sessions have resumed at PeaceLove’s studio inside the Hope Artiste Village. Sparr and Kaplan plan to resume Storytelling Day in the fall, but no date has yet been set. The future course of the pandemic will have the final say.

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“That’s what we miss the most,” Kaplan said. “As much as we like to bring 400 people together to celebrate, we hope that maybe fall will provide a better opportunity. So we are thinking about it. We have incredible storytellers who have reached out to us, people we have met over the years. and who want to share more than ever.

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Kayleen C. Rice