— Jackie Genis

A homeless woman fell asleep over her food at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, one of Vancouver’s Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters, while her young child sat engaged at a craft table sampling the magic of creative play. Other children would hungrily tap their inspirations using a variety of donated arts supplies while still more mothers, families, and couples finally had a chance to simply eat.

“Art relieves stress, and gives them a chance to think and be creative,” said Laurel Whitehurst, one of the founding members of Arts of Clark County who spearheaded the nonprofit’s donated arts supplies program. She was also at the fore starting the Clark County Arts Commission. “You have to have the basics first – food and shelter – and then you can sit down and let your mind play a little bit.”

The donated arts supplies are filling the need to play, imagine, relax, and create.

Getting donated arts supplies into the hands of homeless children is also part of an ongoing effort that ensures no child is left behind when it comes to arts education. Thanks to the generosity of the community and local businesses, this season’s many donated arts supplies provided a lot of joy to young people and even adults.

“There were so many art supplies donated that I was able to supply three other spots with art supplies for children waiting for special services,” said Whitehurst, also an artist. “They include the Children’s Mental Health Center, the Children’s Justice Center, and the day shelter at the Friends of the Carpenter’s.”

For the past five years, said Whitehurst, local merchants have been supportive and served as a donation location. The idea is to make it easy for the community to drop off items. This year, Whitehurst reached out to Jamie Lutz, the owner of Shipyard Millie’s Vintage store in Uptown. Lutz agreed to serve as a donation spot and said the community response was heartfelt and generous.

“This isn’t a winter only need – people are in this situation year-round,” said Lutz. “It is one of those overlooked needs, and people don’t pay enough attention to it, because it is a need apart from donating food and clothing.”

Having adequate downtime when you are a kid is important, Lutz explained, and doing arts and crafts when you are young (and throughout life) is a great way to get this. “These are things we take for granted,” said Lutz. “These kids don’t have good access to sources of downtime.”

Crayons, tablets, paper, coloring books, stickers, paints, colored markers, and more were among donations. One of the big hit items, said Whitehurst, was a popular product that looked like wet molding sand. “Two little boys pounded it until it was flat,” she said. “Then they made snowmen and little pencil rolls – they just love that stuff – I like to keep it on paper plates.”

The homeless problem in Vancouver and in Washington State is significant. There is still a great need to find solutions. The situation is made worse by rising rents, lack of affordable housing, and not enough shelters. In 2003, Council for the Homeless and Share partnered with the Greater Vancouver Interfaith Association to create the Winter Hospitality Overflow. The program is committed to providing safe shelter during the winter months to families and individuals experiencing homelessness.

“A little bit of help,” said Whitehurst, “and it goes a long way.”

To learn more about homelessness and ways to volunteer or help, please visit whoprogram.org or councilforthehomeless.org.