The Bay Area is well-known as a hub of all things artistic and boasts a long history of supporting creative endeavors within its greater community.
DrawBridge, a local nonprofit organization, strives to uphold that connection by encouraging local children to pursue their creativity through free, expressive art programs at emergency shelters and affordable housing facilities in communities across the San Francisco Bay Area.
This philanthropic organization provides free art supplies and lessons in seven counties, including Marin, San Francisco, Alameda, Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz. They now offer, on average, more than 1,000 free art group lessons each year.
DrawBridge was founded in 1989 by art therapist Gloria Simoneaux, who utilized the creative arts to help children and young adults work through the complex emotions associated with familial challenges. The first two DrawBridge art groups were offered at Hamilton Family Center and Marin Housing Center’s emergency shelters. During the first years of the DrawBridge program, the transformational effects of art on the lives of young people and their families became apparent.
“The goal of DrawBridge is really to increase self-confidence, spark joy and just really give people, especially children, a chance to connect with their own personal creative expression and to watch others do the same,” Tracy Bays-Boothe, DrawBridge’s executive director, said. “It blows your lid to watch the process—you just can’t leave a DrawBridge program and not be almost giddy with the joy that you see. Even when people are dealing with such heavy issues, it’s great to see the effect the DrawBridge program has.”
Bays-Boothe has worked as an arts educator and nonprofit leader for more than 20 years. Before joining DrawBridge as executive director in May 2021, she held leadership positions at the Dallas Museum of Art, Crow Museum of Asian Art in Dallas and Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. She earned her masters in art education at the University of North Texas and holds a bachelor’s of fine arts in art history.
“The expressive arts we offer at DrawBridge are slightly different from the traditional approach to art, and there are different definitions. The definition we use can be rooted in psychology and art therapy and, in the initial stages of DrawBridge, was much more evident with Gloria [Simoneaux’s] training, since she was a fully-fledged art therapist,” Bays-Boothe said. “Now, DrawBridge is trauma-informed and therapy-informed. We have rooted ourselves in the history of expressive arts, but now it is not scientifically therapy-based. It’s less about the tools to create great works of art and more about the inspiration for creative expression.”
Trained facilitators and volunteers provide a safe and supportive environment for DrawBridge participants to explore playful creativity, essential to healthy development. Using this approach, DrawBridge aims to allow children to establish their own direction, pace of creation and depth of self-exploration when expressing themselves through artistic endeavors.
“The DrawBridge program is based on weekly, monthly or bimonthly art groups led by trained facilitators who receive trauma training and are active artists, educators or are engaged volunteers,” Bays-Boothe said. “One of the key factors that has been so powerful with DrawBridge is the relationships that we see form between facilitators and sites that have lasted decades. We’ve seen some of the children grow up and become facilitators themselves.”
One of the main drives of DrawBridge is to form and maintain partnerships in the communities where they work by creating a network of support, in order to reach more children who could benefit from access to the arts.
The organization recently developed a new partnership with the Alameda Recreation and Parks Department to present free monthly art activities as part of a summer film program in parks across the city. They also launched a new summer program called Summer Art Adventures, which allows children access to art lessons and supplies during their summer breaks. This program was created in order to give DrawBridge participants the opportunity to focus on art, nature and community.
Last fall, DrawBridge launched a new Community Artist program, which aims to introduce the children to local artists who are deeply connected with the community and to provide mentorship and inspiration for them.
They also started offering DrawBridge Creativity Kits, a new service initiative that grew out of distributions of materials during the pandemic. Now the organization has partnered with Blick Art Materials, Subaru Marin and Scrap SF to create and deliver hundreds of art kits filled with creative prompts and art materials to the children who rely on DrawBridge.
“The response in the community when they learn about the DrawBridge program has been amazingly supportive,” Bays-Booth said. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is expand the reach of our programs. The need for our services post-pandemic is even greater since so many people have been displaced, and the idea of increasing housing security in the Bay Area is needed, as it was exacerbated by the pandemic. We have been and are still looking for ways to broaden our reach here at DrawBridge.”
DrawBridge maintained its volunteer efforts during the course of the pandemic by offering virtual lessons. Fortunately, the organization has resumed in-person lessons after 18 months of virtual teaching and has been able to reopen 50–60 percent of its programs, all without any COVID-related incidents or outbreaks.
Given the recent COVID surges, DrawBridge and the sites remain proactive in their preventative measures and plan to pause programs should the need arise. Until then, they will continue the in-person sessions so that no children are left without a group.
“I see the arts as essential,” Bays-Boothe said. “That’s one of the things that was really lovely to offer through DrawBridge during the pandemic—art is a restorative outlet for people to process the isolation and depression and all of the things that came with that. The arts can be a tool for healing, for uniting even when we’re physically isolated, and it’s been a reminder of the power of these kinds of programs. All of our administrative team is remote, and all of our programs are free. We never deny a family or provider when they ask for our services, and we are completely reliant on the generosity of our donors and the community which supports us.”
To learn more about the artistic programs at DrawBridge, visit drawbridge.org.