By Eric Breier
It’s not unusual for the veterans who participate in Operation Art to start with a cautious approach.
“A lot of times they are hesitant and say they’re just going to watch,” said Marilyn Huerta, a communications specialist in Cal State San Marcos’ College of Education, Health and Human Services. “But before you know it, they’re involved.”
Operation Art, an art-healing project aimed at helping homeless veterans, debuted last spring as CSUSM professor Eliza Bigham and Huerta worked with three of Bigham’s human development students to facilitate sessions at the Hawthorne Veteran and Family Resource Center in Escondido on Friday mornings for six weeks.
“Interfaith considers Operation Art a building block to healing for veterans and non-veterans recuperating at our Hawthorne Veteran and Family Resource Center,” said Micki Hickox, volunteer coordinator at Interfaith. “With the support and encouragement from Operation Art volunteers, participants unleash their creativity and rediscover more about themselves than they might expect. It is partnerships such as this that strengthen and enrich our community.”
Operation Art was born from a conversation Huerta had with Greg Anglea, the executive director of Interfaith Community Services. Huerta visited Interfaith while participating in CSUSM’s Leadership North County program in 2015. She asked Anglea if Interfaith ever did art-healing projects with clients, a conversation that led to the creation of Operation Art.
The program completed its second semester this fall, this time with seven students from Bigham’s Human Development 497 class participating. The students gathered research and completed surveys while working with clients at the center.
“It was a definite worthwhile experience that made my Friday mornings something to look forward to,” CSUSM student Lilliana Ojeda said.
The students visited Hawthorne early in the semester to become acquainted with the community and clients at the center. They also examined previous studies on healing arts to learn how art can be used as a tool for healing.
“Art is not just for art majors or people who want to create masterpieces,” Huerta said. “It’s a tool that brings people together. Art helps people to connect, communicate, create and cope.”
Operation Art sessions typically begin with work on a group mural painting, which acts as an icebreaker between the students and the clients.
Other individual art projects have included mask painting, friendship bracelets, drawing and even utilizing coloring books.
“We always try to have them reflect by asking, ‘Can you tell me about your piece?’ ” Huerta said. “We don’t pry. It’s whatever they want to share. Art is the tool for communication.”
Huerta said it’s not only rewarding to work with the veterans, but also to see students who may start out passive and quiet come out of their shells by working with the veterans.
Helping veterans holds special significance for Huerta, who comes from a military family. Her father served in the Air Force, her husband was a Marine, her son is an active-duty Marine and her daughter recently joined the Coast Guard.
“My dad used to do art with me when I was a kid,” she said. “As a kid, I always loved art and my parents always encouraged me. Many years later, I learned how to use art as a tool to help people communicate and connect.”