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Art Therapy Offers Comfort To Victim's Family At Event To Mark Parkland Mass Shooting

Lori Alhadeff picked up a mallet and banged a small, colorful drum. At one point, she closed her eyes to feel the rhythm of the others in the small circle, who were also improvising with percussion instruments.

Alhadeff, who lost her daughter, Alyssa, two years ago in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, joined in during the music therapy activity at Pine Trails Park in Parkland Friday afternoon. 

It was one of the ways the community chose to honor the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting and offer comfort to families and survivors.

As music therapist Bree Gordon directed the drum circle to bring the song to a close, she asked the participants to offer a word to describe the experience.

Alhadeff said: "Powerful."

“Just the sound and the feeling of the motion of being able to bang the drum helps to get my stress out,” Alhadeff said.

After her daughter's death, Alhadeff won a seat on the Broward County school board. She started a foundation, Make Our Schools Safe, to advocate for hardening schools around the country. Last year, she achieved a legislative victory in her home state of New Jersey with Alyssa's Law, which requires public schools there to install silent panic alarms.

Alhadeff's sister-in-law, Amanda Robinovitz, joined the family for Friday’s event. She’s a teacher in New Jersey and said she feels like schools there are already safer because of Parkland parents’ activism.

"It was hard going back to work at first” after losing her niece in the school shooting, Robinovitz said. “But knowing that change is happening — they've made a lot of updates to the security — I feel better, myself going to work and sending my kids on the bus every day."

Art therapist Alicia Ballestas welcomed Robinovitz and her 7-year-old daughter, Brianna, to Friday's event, showing them the supplies they could work with: paint canvases, masks, colorful duct tape, glass beads.

Ballestas showed the girl a stretchy white clay that’s similar to Play-Doh, “except it doesn't smell as weird, and it's not salty, and you can mold it and create something,” the therapist said. “And then in 24 hours, it stays dry, and you can have it forever!"

Brianna responded: “My grandma doesn't really like Play-Doh," and they laughed.

Ballestas said art therapy helps in moments “when words just aren’t enough.”

“I believe that art has the power to kind of wake a part of you that’s really hard to express,” she said.

The music and art therapy was provided by Shine MSD, a foundation started by two student survivors of the shooting. The group hosts monthly workshops on the third Thursday evening of each month at Eagles’ Haven Wellness Center in Coral Springs. Shine MSD also offers a summer art therapy camp for Stoneman Douglas students and alumni as well as those who attend Westglades Middle School next door.

Friday’s event also featured therapy dogs, a community service project, an art installation and a ceremony led by faith leaders.

The Clergy Coalition of Coral Springs, Parkland and Northwest Broward combined prayers and meditations from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Their message: remember the people who lost their lives and also live yours to the fullest. 

"Our prayer ... was that you are able to walk from here tonight with a bit more comfort, a bit more peace, and even encouragement," Pastor Randall Cutter from New Dawn Community Church said. 

Moving forward with resilience was a theme of the evening remembrance. A new art project called The Big Picture: Resilience was installed in the park. 

Large panels with photographs form a display to walk through. It’s the fifth and last of a series of public art created in Coral Springs and Parkland — part of a project called "The Power of Art: Inspiring Community Healing After Gun Violence." (The same project brought the Temple of Time to Coral Springs last year.)

Fifteen people from Parkland and Coral Springs used photojournalism as a part of the healing process. Then, Miami Herald photojournalist, Carl Juste, followed five people to document them. 

"Our job – myself and C.W. Griffin (another award-winning photojournalist) and the rest of the team – was to get out of our own way and let these wonderful people speak on their own behalf," Juste said. "To amplify their voice – not to give them one."

One of the fellows who let Juste document her healing is Dena Lowell. A longtime Parkland resident, she was battling breast cancer in the aftermath of the shooting. 

"Physically, I was the most unhealthy and sick I've ever been, and mentally I just couldn't find the motivation to get up out of the chair and stop staring at the wall," Lowell said. "I really had to look inward to complete these projects, and it was incredibly healing. I'm a different person than I was."

The Big Picture: Resilience will be on display in Pine Trails Park through May.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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