When Donald Cottrell, principal at Sunset School in Fort Lauderdale, first heard about the concept of Eco-Art Therapy -- which fuses education on environmental issues with art in a therapeutic context -- he was hooked.
It was more than seven years ago, and at the time, he was principal of Broadview Elementary School. He heard Byron Swart, an active force in Broward County's arts scene, present the idea at a City of Tamarac meeting.
"I chased Byron out of the meeting and tackled him," Cottrell said. "I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it's sort of what happened."
Four years ago, the idea came to fruition when Sunset School and ArtServe -- an arts service organization in Fort Lauderdale -- teamed up to launch Eco-Art Therapy at the school, which services children and young adults with "emotional and behavioral disabilities." Students range in age from five to 22 years, with grades kindergarten through twelth represented.
The program is in the midst of its fourth annual session. Each year, the program is spread over five weeks, with five instructors each leading two, 50-minute sessions every Monday. The program culminates in a sixth "session" that brings everything together and allows students to show off their works.
Each year, there are five genres that each student can experience. This year's targets include; clay (as led by Steven Sylvester, who has been with the program since its start), hip-hop dance (taught by Pablo Marco), acrylic painting, and photography. Sylvester and Marco have been passionate early supporters of the project and school, securing their own funding to work with students on a year-round basis.
New this year to Eco-Art is graphic design, taught by a recent graduate from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Cottrell said students have responded enthusiastically to the tech-y medium.
"(Monday) was the second session and our kids were just in heaven when they got to go to the computer lab," Cottrell said.
The program -- which has support from various grants and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation -- was praised this month by the School Board of Broward County. Each month, the board selects one partnership because it "really likes to recognize partnerships," Cottrell said. Eco-Art was the board's recognized partnership of the year in 2012.
When Eco-Art initially launched, funding and teacher experience limited student participation to Sunset's older students. This year, there is sufficient funding to allow all of the approximately 110 students to participate.
Cottrell credits not only ArtServe for this feat, but the artists that the organization recruits for the project. He said their dedication to giving "kids an appreciation" for something they didn't envision being able to do has had a big impact on the students. This is particularly evident when the kids are able to show off completed works in gallery shows and other public venues.
"It's not a partnership, it's a love affair," Cottrell said.
Watch a video about Eco-Therapy to see the artists and kids in action.