The Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance (SAACA) and Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs continue to make big strides in a program dedicated to the wellbeing of the nation’s disabled veterans.

Initiated nine months ago, the Creative Arts Therapy Program launched with the goal of providing healing and quality of life support to veterans with cognitive or physical disabilities through the use of music, literary and visual arts, community integration, and performing arts. It serves as a supplement to the already existing Veterans Live Music Program. 

With two signature sponsors in Sanofia Healthcare and Oro Valley resident Bill Adler, Creative Arts Therapy was a small idea that is now turning into something bigger as it gains more traction. 

“The reaction has been spectacular,” said Kate Marquez, executive director of SAACA. “We’ve planted the seed that we hope will now grow to local hospitals, assisted living facilities, and rehab centers.”

To date the program has provided support for about 400 veterans with a broad spectrum of issues, including post traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s, mobility challenges, traumatic brain injuries, blindness, and more. 

Adler, a Korean War veteran who has been an avid supporter of SAACA over the years, said the Creative Arts Therapy Program fills a major void.

“I’ve always felt this an underserved portion of the population,” he said. “We are in a humanitarian crisis when it comes to properly serving our veterans.”

Veterans Erik Castillo and Arthur Rico, who both suffered severe brain injuries while serving in the Middle East, are two of many who have benefited from the program.

They take part in the writing therapy programming, spearheaded by Laila Halaby.

Rico was involved in a vehicular accident while on a mission, and was only able to put together a few words early into his recovery, but is now writing multiple, coherent paragraphs. The therapy has also helped comfortably transition his social skills.

“When you come to these groups, and people have similar problems, that helps you get through it,” said Rico. 

Castillo, too, has seen vast improvements after a bomb blast destroyed about 45 percent of his brain tissue, impairing his memory, speech, and motor movements. 

“I do a lot of academic writing, so this has really helped me tap into my brain,” said Castillo, who is currently studying at the University of Arizona.

Along with the educational benefits, the project is intended to keep veterans’ minds focused on positive productivity while also implementing a source of leisure.

“It takes my mind off things that I could be thinking about,” said 23-year Navy veteran Dave Jones, who takes part in Music for Blind Therapy, overseen by music therapist Sierra Norris. 

Jones had a stroke in both eyes on Dec. 15, 2013. During a therapy session on July 9, he kept company with Air Force veteran Al Linde, whose sight deteriorated as a result of age-related macular degeneration, and Air Force veteran Larry Troxell, a victim of retinitis pigmentosa.

“It’s tough dealing with the challenges we deal with, but this has been such a bonus for us,” said Linde. 

Often veterans receiving care are forced to spend time away from their families, though that may change with an ongoing fundraiser for a Fisher House, which would house families of veterans receiving care at the Southern Arizona VA facility. 

“It’s easy to get anxious when you’re in a foreign place without loved ones, but programs like this help ease the tension,” said Troxell.

While some like Castillo and Rico say the Creative Arts Therapy Program helps them feel “normal” again, to those involved in the project, “normal” is an understatement.

“These men and women did nothing wrong, and in fact did everything above and beyond,” said Adler. “They deserve the best that we can give them.” 

To learn how to contribute to the Creative Arts Therapy Program financially, as an artist, or as a volunteer, call SAACA at 797-3959.

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