LAKE WALES — Dean Schumaker’s participation in World War II was limited to a brief stint in the Navy and he never saw action.
But the Lake Wales veteran, who is 89, still benefits from a no-cost arts program designed for former and current military personnel who battle symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Each Tuesday afternoon, Schumaker joins other veterans and their spouses at American Legion Post 71, a cavernous, warehouse complex north of downtown Lake Wales, for two hours of pottery basics.
Using clay that hardens without heat, the class members fashion bowls, vases and figurines that are later hand-painted into colorful keepsakes.
Participants talk of zen-like benefits, leaving them calm and relaxed after class and well beyond.
Arts4Vets is offered at various locations throughout Polk County through a partnership between the Polk Veterans Council and the Arts Ensemble Education Foundation, based in Winter Haven. Monetary support comes from the Florida Veterans Foundation and private donors.
Money is an ongoing concern for Jane Waters Thomas, who oversees the nonprofit Arts Ensemble, which operates various arts programs for adults and youth and is aligned with Doors2Change, a sister agency serving the poor through home repairs, home gardening education and more.
Thomas, who serves as executive director of the two agencies, hopes to expand the arts program for veterans by adding more classes. The program already offers instruction in acrylic painting and mixed media, and this fall will add a class on sculpting with Lego bricks and other parts.
Pottery instruction is proving popular, Waters said, and plans call for more advanced instruction in ceramics, which requires the purchase of pottery wheels, kilns and other equipment and supplies.
“We are fundraising like mad right now,” she said. “The program matters so much. This is probably the most exciting program I’ve ever put together.”
Federal support for veterans' healing arts programs received a nearly $2 million boost last year to expand programs like Arts4Vets nationwide.
The funding increase builds on programs already established at 11 military sites across the country, including James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. The program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Defense Department, is using clinical research from each site to measure the impacts and benefits of so-called healing arts.
These arts programs use music, visual arts, dance, drama and creative writing to help veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, PTSD and other psychological health issues. According to the NEA, the therapies improve communication and cognitive skills and emotional functioning.
Veterans with PTSD and other mental health issues also benefit from the social aspect of group activities, said Polly Loeber, a licensed clinical social worker hired by Arts4Vets to be a sounding board for veterans and their loved one.
The benefits of arts therapy extend to veterans’ spouses and children, she said, which is why the classes are free to the entire household.
“They’re the ones who bear much of the burden (of someone experiencing PTSD),” Loeber said. Working with clay for several hours, or painting a landscape, leaves people “relaxed and at ease,” she said. “Often they don’t want to go home. There’s camaraderie and friendship.”
For Schumaker and his fiancée, Doris Furgeson, the classes are a fun alternative to routine.
“It gives him something to do so we’re not sitting at home,” Furgeson said. “He enjoys it.”
Mike Miller, a Vietnam War veteran from Lake Wales, isn’t interested in sculpting clay, but his wife, Janet, 66, jumped at the opportunity.
“I have made friends,” she said, digging at a lump of clay with a sharp instrument. “When you sit and work on something your thoughts are focused.”
That’s the point of the healing arts, Loeber said, the idea of getting lost in creative projects.
“There’s so much work going on internally through the art,” she said. “That’s where the healing comes through.”
Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528.