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Aurora program puts art created by young people in the spotlight

DarmickCampbell gives hug art therapist MelissHedlund Friday during an opening 'This Little Light Mine I'm GonnLet It Shine' exhibit storefront

Darmicka Campbell gives a hug to art therapist Melissa Hedlund Friday during an opening of the "This Little Light of Mine I'm Gonna Let It Shine" exhibit in a storefront window at 5 E. Downer Place in Aurora. It is one of several windows decorated with artwork as part of the Vacant Window project. | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 21, 2013 6:22AM

You should have been there. Honestly. The toothy grins and coy smiles would have moved you to tears.

You should have seen them. Young women, children, pre-teens, shining brightly like stars in the dark summer sky.

It was their day — and what a day it was.

On a recent warm night in downtown Aurora, more than 30 people gathered in front of what was once a vacant window, and watched it light up with colorful displays of art.

The project was the result of months of hard work by Hesed House’s Transitional Living Community residents, and local art therapists Melissa Hedlund and Julienne Reid Stickney.

Hedlund runs A Light of the Heart, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the benefits of art therapy to anyone in need of a pick-me-up. Based on the joy radiating around them on Friday night when the window was unveiled, it was safe to say their mission at Hesed House had been a success.

“I feel like a star,” 16-year-old Diamond Flournoy said, as she stared into the window where her artwork was perched and displayed for the world to see. “It was really a relief to be able to express my inner thoughts on paper.”

Some of the art showed the heartbreak that often accompanies the homeless population. There were sad eyes drawn alongside broken hearts. But there were also self-affirming phrases like love, and peace and strength and joy. Hope and friends and education were scrawled underneath sprawling trees as testaments to values that are important to the girls. Each project was the result of a prompt given to the young students by the art therapists.

The experience hit home for budding young artist Michelle Bausch, 10, who explained the benefits of working with Hedlund and Stickney.

“In class (at school) we do art, too. But, this is different. This art lets us express ourselves. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s amazing.”

To see her work displayed behind glass on a busy downtown street was a dream come true, she said.

“It’s so exciting. I can’t believe it,” Bausch said in awe of her accomplishment.

For Hedlund, the journey has been equally as fulfilling.

The pride in her eyes as she watched smiles creep across each child’s face was tangible.

To Stickney, working with the young girls was a powerful, life-changing experience.

“The talents, creativity and spirit they have is unbelievable. It has been an amazing journey,” she said.

That road has been just as blessed for each participant. It’s not every day that their needs are catered to so warmly. Not every day that people take the time to show they care, Fournoy said.

“You guys have been really special to us,” she said, presenting each therapist with a small glass “Hesed Heart.” “This is for coming out and making us feel special and caring a lot about us. A lot of people don’t do that. You are really close to us now. You helped bring out our inner selves and our hearts.”

And those hearts were on display Friday night, right alongside their artwork.

Standing in front of the small crowd, each girl took the microphone and poured their hearts out in words, reading letters they had handwritten to themselves at the finale of their art therapy program.

Darmicka Campbell, 20, peeled open her sealed envelope and began to read.

“You are great at everything you do,” she said. “All of your artwork comes from your heart and has a message. Keep your head up, and never stop trying.”

The girls’ display, “This Little Heart of Mine, I’m Going to Let it Shine,” is on display at 5 E. Downer Place in downtown Aurora.

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