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Art is more than something that hangs on a wall. In Toledo, art is helping people with mental illness get in touch with their feelings, communicate with others, and improve their self-esteem.

The Creative Expressions program pioneered by NAMI of Greater Toledo is engaging about 1,000 people each year in a variety of volunteer-led art activities. Started in 2014, the program allows people to express themselves through art, make a connection, and grow positive skills, according to Kristen L. Zientek, program coordinator for NAMI of Greater Toledo.

Funded in part through the Mental Health Services and Recovery Board of Lucas County, Creative Expressions began working with adults, children and families in the criminal justice system as well as the Latino population. However, it has now expanded dramatically to include Toledo Public Schools, LGBT teens, runaway teens and individuals with developmental disabilities, Zientek said.
While peer-led, Creative Expressions has a licensed art therapist, Carol Coder, on board with the program.

Zientek said volunteers pick a theme, usually one related to mental health support, such as self-esteem. The art projects evolve from the theme, such as one where participants added affirming statements to mirrors to look at themselves in a more positive way.

“At the end, they share a little bit about their projects. They are talking about their projects, but they’re really talking about themselves as well,” Zientek said. “Sometimes people can express themselves with colors and images better than words.”

About 1,000 people are involved in 13 on-going art groups, with some folks involved in more than one group.

Doing art in a no-pressure, no-judgment environment “reduces stress, helps builds connections with others who might be isolated. It’s free and all materials are provided,” she said. “There’s not a lot of programs that are free and fun. A lot of people say they like that it’s peer-led. They feel like are part of something. It helps empower them. If they’re hesitant about something, it helps them step out of their comfort zone.”
Sarah Bradish, a volunteer with Creative Expressions and NAMI, said she started in July of 2016. “Since NAMI has helped me get through so much of my mental health wellness journey, I figured it was time for me to give back.”

Sarah said volunteering with Creative Expressions “gave me hope on sharing what talents I have with our community…. It helped me come out of my shell and eased my transition of being in public. The program helped me grow to be a consistent dependable person. It also prepared me to use important life skills of working with others and troubleshoot problems as needed.”

The growth Sarah experienced through NAMI helped her to begin working again at a part-time job, she said. She continues to volunteer with Creative Expressions “because the community needs a program like this. There are a lot of creative people out there that need more than a ‘talk’ support group. It is great seeing people of all ages learn a new skill, help them open up, ask questions, break the stigma, and learn that there are people like me that can get healthy and contribute. I’m so thankful for this program! It is truly a life-changing experience. I thought being diagnosed with a mental illness would keep me from having a better life. I am proof that people can change, learn new ideas, learn new skills, and lead by example.”

For a video look at the Creative Expressions program, follow this link:

More information about Creative Expressions is available by calling NAMI of Greater Toledo at 419 243-1119 or online at