By Jessica Steinhoff | Photography by Hillary Schave
When it comes to turning lemons into lemonade, art is a transformative ingredient for better mental health. Carey Zawlocki helps kids cultivate mental and emotional wellness at Monroe Street Arts Center (MSAC), which offers visual art and music instruction.
Zawlocki, MSAC’s director since 2020, makes this kind of lemonade by the gallon. It was a crucial part of her high school years, when she developed alopecia universalis, a medical condition that makes her hair fall out. Art class became her sanctuary as she found ways to cope.
“My art teacher was the person I could go to when I needed an escape during a hard day. Her room was my safe space,” Zawlocki recalls. “I learned how to be resilient, compassionate and strong — and ultimately how to use creativity for processing difficult moments.”
This experience inspired Zawlocki to earn degrees in photography and arts education. While she loved art for art’s sake, she also knew its power to heal. As an art teacher in Chicago Public Schools, she partnered with speech and occupational therapists to help students use creativity to face life’s obstacles.
Informed by these partnerships, Zawlocki has big plans to make MSAC even more inclusive. In 2022, she’ll introduce visual-art programs featuring an occupational therapist from Aspire Therapy & Development Services who will help kids with developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder and other challenges work toward therapeutic goals, like devising and executing a multi- step plan. Zawlocki’s team is also developing music classes where neurodiverse and neurotypical children can socialize and communicate with support from their caregivers and an Aspire speech-language pathologist.
Her commitment to wellness and a collaborative spirit touch every corner of MSAC. One of her proudest achievements is helping kids find common ground, a skill they can use throughout their lives.
“We have an amazing group of kids with very diverse backgrounds and interests. Through our classes and camps, they express their individuality while finding a common thread that connects them,” says Zawlocki.
That common thread takes many shapes. For some kids, it’s making manga about their lives. For others, it’s learning to play the guitar with a local musician. For many, it’s a desire to explore a range of creative outlets, from sculpture to yoga to ukulele jam sessions.
Collaboration has helped the center survive the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Bighearted locals often donate supplies such as paints, markers and beads. When lockdowns started placing extra demands on parents, staff began creating kits filled with materials for at-home art projects. A video tutorial guides young makers through every activity, and then they’re encouraged to share their creations with classmates, grandparents and others on Instagram and Facebook. Each
kit has a theme (gratitude, for example), and a portion of the proceeds go to other community organizations in need (Second Harvest Foodbank, among others).
“Engaging with the community and supporting local nonprofits is a big part of what we do,” Zawlocki says. “Collaboration is where a lot of creativity is born, and we can learn so much from each other.”