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St. Albans non-profit relies on art to heal psyches

They drew masks portraying both their insecurities and their attractive qualities. They listed the stresses in their lives. They sang hymns. And at the end of the night, they gathered for a big group hug."They welcome you," said Elizabeth Johnson, 46, of Jamaica. "It's not fake. It's really natural - that's why I like it."Johnson came to the Roy Wilkins Family Center, located within the park of the same name at 177th Street and Baisley Boulevard, for the first meeting of Healing Hearts Through the Creative Arts, a new nonprofit created by area resident Wanda Paige to help other women."It was based on a lot of issues I had to deal with in my own life," said Paige, 46, of Rochdale Village. There was a time recently when her nephews were in and out of jail, her church no longer felt welcoming and she was having problems at work. "It was so many things going on that I slipped into a deep depression," she said.Paige did not come out of her malaise until finding a new church. It was there, she said, that she received a vision from God to create a special type of group to help other suffering women.As it name implies, Paige's new group provides a place to talk about problems and to practice the arts as a form of therapy. The Friday session included the mask drawing to raise consciousness about self-esteem, the hymn singing in order to spiritually meditate and a project to identify and relieve life's stresses. Future meetings will also include constructing baskets to give to others, making crafts to draw the mind away from negative thoughts and participating in a book club with a self-help theme."When you're doing different types of projects, it tends to take your mind off (problems) for a time," Paige said, noting that in art, as in life, one can tear the creation apart and start over."Whenever a sister falls down, we're here to help her back up," she told the women at the meeting. It was attended by three guests and five female staff volunteers, some friends of Paige's, others recommended by acquaintances. Eventually the group would like to secure public funding, but for now it is trying to let the community know about its presence, handing out fliers, starting a Web site and placing postings on Craigslist.com. While Paige is targeting shelters and homes for those in recovery, "anyone can come that needs help," she said.Johnson, who came with her 16-year-old daughter Bianca to the Friday meeting, said she had difficulties at times with family members who took advantage of her loving nature, and recently her landlord sold the building in which she and her daughter lived, forcing them to now look for a new place. "It's hard because of the holidays," she said. "Being here kind of relieved that. They made me feel that no matter what kind of burden I carry, I can speak to someone."Paige, who is employed as a supervisor at the Jamaica post office, currently works on her nonprofit during her free time and has plans to finish an associate's degree in psychology at Queensborough Community College. Down the road, she would like to help women on a full-time basis.Her vision for Healing Hearts Through the Creative Arts is "that women will pass through here, that they will become whole, that they will return and give back."Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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