Lauren Colegrove

Sitting at a table toward the back of a large conference room, a man reads over his copy of the poem “A Dream” by Edgar Allen Poe and silently practices the words he is about to share with his peers. A lady to his left chats amiably with those sitting near her as men and women begin to take their seats in the circle of chairs placed so that one can’t help but feel the encouragement and support that the area provides.

The McClendon Center’s Friday morning showcase is about to begin.

The center, which is certified through the D.C. Department of Mental Health, has been providing the D.C. community with mental health programs and day services since 1980.
It is located on the top floor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near Metro Center. Nine treatment teams, each serving between 75 to 85 patrons a day, are currently at work at the center.

Clients are offered the chance to participate in four different program tracks: consumer empowerment, clinical skills building, substance abuse recovery and expressive arts therapy. Art, movement and drama classes are incorporated into the program as a fundamental part of the Center’s mission of holistic treatment.

Sean Favretto, a dance and movement psychotherapist and day program team leader at the McClendon Center, said he can often connect to people and understand their experiences through dance and other forms of non-verbal communication.

“The expressive therapies are powerful,” he said. Participation in the arts can provide insights into clients’ inner lives through the use of symbolism and movement. As a leader, Favretto said he strives to “[use] the creative process, the artistic process, to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Organizations in the D.C. area have taken notice of the expressive arts program’s success. The Center’s executive director Dennis Hobb said the center recently received a grant from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, a philanthropy that supports the humanities and art programs in Washington, D.C.

The $30,000 grant will enable the center to study the correlation between expressive art therapy and the function level of the clients through the use of the Multnomah Community Ability Scale (MCAS). This assessment measures health, adaptation, social skills and behavior in order to evaluate the progress of treatment.

The morning showcase is only one of the creative outlets the McClendon Center offers each week. The showcase, which is held on Fridays, usually begins with a morning stretch led by one of the staff members. Clients shout out the characteristics they value and wish to cultivate within themselves — such as honesty, love and perseverance — as they lift their hands and breathe deeply, moving to the rhythm of the instrumental music.

Because the showcase is an opportunity for all clients to share their talents and passions, the program changes from week to week. The morning of July 13 featured poetry readings and a piano tune, along with a Tae Bo exercise taught by one of the clients, who said the routine is a good way to “get rid of stress” and is a chance to grow “strong spiritually and mentally.”

One man crooned a song as the crowd clapped along with the “ba-ba-doop-ba-do-ba” scat singing, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, and patrons were encouraged to participate in a line of dance.

Along with group showcases, clients also have an opportunity to express themselves through the various dance, art and drama therapy programs offered throughout the week. Connor Dale, the drama therapist at the center, said that through the use of improvisational games in the drama class, clients are able to increase their awareness and experience different perspectives by interacting with one another. This provides the clients with the opportunity to see something outside of themselves while also encouraging individual mindfulness of personal identity.

The open art studio is another of the center’s programs that promotes socialization and involves clients coming together to create. The center proudly displays numerous writings, paintings and sketches that patrons have constructed, engendering an atmosphere of respect and support. Here, encouragement can be heard in place of criticism and individual development is valued over the mastery of artistic technique.
Brooke Baker, the Center’s art therapist, said that “seeing any kind of personal growth in a person, even if it means a person smiles a little more,” is one of the incredibly rewarding aspects of the Center’s expressive arts programs.

“I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been here,” explained one patron, who said when he first entered the program a few years ago he only came in the mornings and was extremely shy.
Now he enjoys interacting with the other clients that the center serves.

He said he particularly looks forward to the dance and movement featured in the programs.

“We dance a lot,” he said. “They play a lot of Motown music.”
Chris, a former client of the center, said during his time in the program he liked sharing his artistic interests and love of New Orleans-style music with the other patrons.

“My creativity was an inspiration to [them],” he said, adding that he also had the opportunity to be a tutor in the literary group because of his experience with writing and screenplays. “[The center] gives a lot of Washington [residents] a chance to find their real self and real skills,” he said.

Favretto said the McClendon Center has an “ultimate goal of making clients as independent as possible.” In this supportive environment, patrons are given a chance to express themselves in a safe setting and know that their freedom of expression, shared through whatever medium they choose, is seen for its true worth.