Riley Cousans, just 9 years old, sobbed as her mother talked with her this week about the trauma that’s gripped their community for more than a year.
“Mommy, I feel like I’m going to get shot wherever I go,” the girl confided, according to her mom, describing her constant fear since a gunman last February killed 17 people at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Billie Cousans tried to reassure her daughter that her elementary school and the high school have been fortified since then. She also talked with her about the stunning news that, in just the past two weeks, two survivors of the massacre took their own lives.
Then, she gathered up Riley and her sister and ferried them to a place that, however unlikely, has become a respite, especially for children, from the unthinkable carnage that still weighs on daily life here.
The Coral Springs Museum of Art again was transformed this week into a space for healing. Three miles from the now-infamous high school, the museum has offered free weekly art therapy for children and educators since the shooting. As word of the suicides spread, its leaders redoubled their efforts to help grief- and anxiety-stricken neighbors cope.
A year to the day after the shooting, museum administrators welcomed hundreds of people through the front doors, which feature none of the armed guards, buzzer-lock or ID-badge features implemented this year at Stoneman Douglas.
The program that day was dubbed, “Art, Play, Love,” and along with painting and drawing, students got to pet mini-goats, pot-bellied pigs and rabbits.
Art therapists use art to help people express difficult feelings, build coping and problem-solving skills, said Raquel Farrell-Kirk, an art therapist with the museum’s Healing with Art program. The approach tends to be less threatening than traditional therapy, particularly with adolescents, who may not want to open up, she said.
“The fact that we’re within the art museum is actually pretty cutting edge,” Farrell-Kirk said. “It’s a nice advantage because we remove some of the stigma.”
Kids kept coming, so art therapy continued
Just a day after one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history, the art museum became a center for crisis counseling, said Julia Andrews, executive director of the institution, which hosts contemporary collections from regional, national and international artists.
Parents and students poured in. The art therapy sessions, already offered to military veterans, began a week later for area children.
“We had kids here every day for two weeks,” Andrews said. “Because they kept coming, we knew that we needed to continue. They knew that they needed to continue.”
Art therapy sessions now cater to teenagers on Tuesdays.
Some Stoneman Douglas students have faithfully attended, despite personal challenges, Farrell-Kirk said. One student once arrived to a session drenched in sweat and panting.
“My mom couldn’t bring me today. I didn’t want to miss it, so I walked,” said the student said, Farrell-Kirk recalled.
Another student came with her high school soccer coach, prompting museum officials to offer classes to educators. Those sessions, held on Thursdays, also give the adults a private space to talk.
Zoe Bonner, a Stoneman Douglas senior, has attending the sessions since November. They help her clear her mind and are a respite from the grind of school and college applications, she said.
There are no deadlines or criteria for her artwork, said Zoe, who is bound for Florida State University.
Farrell-Kirk usually suggests a theme to guide students but gives them creative freedom.
“It’s kind of just expressing yourself in the purest form,” Zoe, 17, told CNN. “You’re free to do whatever you want, use whatever materials you want, and just have at it.”
Giving ‘MSD Strong’ a new meaning
The children’s trauma is reflected in their art.
Right after the shooting, a group of students painted 17 wooden stars, one for each victim: 14 students and three educators.
On the anniversary, some Stoneman Douglas students decorated a canvas mural by painting the victims’ names and drawing the school’s eagle mascot, along with, “MSD Strong.”
The slogan has come to represent the community’s resilience. After the recent suicides, that meaning, hopefully, will expand, Farrell-Kirk said.
“You have to be strong enough to ask for help. And you have to be strong enough to have these really hard conversations about what you’re struggling with and how that feels and not think that ‘MSD Strong’ just means you’re good, you’ve got this by yourself,” she said.
Sydney Aiello, a 2018 graduate, took her life on March 17, people close to her family said. Her mother told CNN affiliate WFOR the Florida Atlantic University student had suffered from survivor’s guilt and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
About a week later, a Stoneman Douglas student died in what police described as “an apparent suicide.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether his death was related to the school shooting.
School officials, parents, law enforcement officers and others met Sunday to address trauma after the suicides. The museum’s Andrews and Farrell-Kirk were there.
With students on spring break this week, the museum again offered drop-in sessions every day.
“We feel that it’s our civic responsibility to be here for our community,” Andrews said. “We had done it before. We knew what worked.”
‘There’s no stress in their lives for the moment’
The mural created during last month’s anniversary event was unfurled Tuesday on a tarp in the middle of the museum’s main gallery, an open space with large windows and brightly colored abstract art on the walls.
In one corner, a music therapist gave an impromptu beginner lesson to a tuba player. His sister, a junior at Stoneman Douglas, softly sang Ariana Grande’s “Ghostin,” strumming chords on her ukulele.
Students folded paper into origami and made prints at small round tables. Volunteer trauma and art therapists sat with students, mostly listening.
Riley sat with a group of mostly 11-year-olds. Her sister, Madison, colored the leaves of a paper sunflower. A pair of twins drew a unique mix of animals, including a flying fox, a wolf and a dragon.
“The thing that relaxes me the most is meditating. So, I am making a picture of someone meditating,” Riley said.
Cousans had previously brought her daughters to the art therapy sessions.
“There’s no stress in their lives for the moment,” she said Tuesday, watching them draw. “Even if it’s just for the hour that they’re here, that’s therapy for them.”
Cousans had felt her own sense of relief after talking earlier in the day with her daughters about suicide. She’d encouraged them to speak with her and people at school if they ever feel like they want to hurt themselves.
“I think we’re too young to think about suicide,” Madison told her, Cousans recalled.
Riley chimed in: “Yes, we’re too young to think about suicide.”
“That’s a good thing,” Cousans said.