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UCLA student integrates art therapy into non-profit organization that help those affected by mental illness

By Jillian Beck

May 18, 2012 2:05 a.m.

Yin Fu
Kendra Knudsen, a fourth-year psychobiology student, works with Tony for the Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization Step Up on Second , where she leads an art studio component. Step Up on Second serves individuals who are affected by mental illness.
Editor’s note: The last names of the members have been removed to protect their privacy.

A group of people follow Kendra Knudsen to the third floor of a building on Santa Monica’s Second Street.

She walks up the stairs, takes the keys from a chain around her neck and unlocks a door with a gold plaque on the front reading “Julie’s Room.”

Inside, the room is filled with art supplies and tables covered in paint-splattered construction paper. Artwork from the members of the organization hang on mirrored walls.

Setting down her green canvas bag, Knudsen, a fourth-year psychobiology student, then helps members pick out the art supplies they will use for the day.

“Kendra, I’m getting into abstract expressionism,” said Nancy, 52, of West Los Angeles, with an excited grin.

Nancy, who is affected by schizophrenia, started painting strokes of blue and yellow acrylic paint onto a white canvas. The quick strokes involved in painting abstract expressionist art helped her let out emotions, she said.

Nancy is one of many people who Knudsen works with on a regular basis while leading the art studio component for Step Up on Second, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization.

The organization serves individuals who are affected by mental illness and also provides services and housing for individuals who are homeless.

And when Knudsen first applied to volunteer as a teaching assistant for the art program in June, the program was in danger of being shut down.

“Instead of being a (teacher’s assistant), which was what I was applying for, I was asked if I wanted to run the program,” Knudsen said.

She agreed. Almost a year later, the program still exists, and participation has increased substantially.

And, through Knudsen’s efforts, so has the level of funding. She recently received $700 for the program as one the recipients of the 2012 Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award, which recognized her for her work with Step Up on Second.

The funds will benefit the Creative Minds Project, an art therapy program at Step Up on Second that Knudsen has created. The project will bring in UCLA undergraduate student volunteers and certified art therapists from Loyola Marymount University and the Drama Therapy Institute of Los Angeles to work with members of Step Up on Second.

She recently secured approval from the UCLA Center for Community Learning for the program to count toward academic credit for eligible students who apply.

Knudsen has also received a $10,000 public service scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation to fund the Creative Minds Project. The foundation funds public service projects of students going into their last year of college.

The Creative Minds Project will give Step Up on Second a certified art therapy program, which it does not currently have, said Emily Linaman, a program manager at Step Up on Second.

For Knudsen, the work combines her two passions ““ art and science.

She makes the 20-minute commute from her apartment in Westwood to volunteer at the program for at least three hours every week.

Among the members, she has become a beloved volunteer.

“They know that they are in a very safe place,” said Jessica, 60, of Santa Monica, who has been coming to Step Up on Second for almost 25 years. “That if they start to fall emotionally, Kendra is going to catch them. They are safe.”

The environment is aimed at allowing members a chance to create something of their own and a sense of escape, Jessica said.

Charity, 60, of Santa Monica painted purple and turquoise strokes onto her canvas to imitate a Monet painting she has at home.

“(The art) takes me out of myself,” Charity said.

“It takes me out of my depression and makes me feel good.”

At one point, Knudsen walked over, holding an art catalog containing Monet paintings. She pointed one painting out, suggesting that Charity add a bit of white acrylic paint to her piece.

Knudsen, who is entering her fifth year at UCLA, plans to spend it building up an undergraduate volunteer force for the Creative Minds Project at Step Up on Second, so that her work will remain for the members long after she leaves.

“It starts with me, but it doesn’t end with me,” Knudsen said.

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