Naropa’s matchbox art fundraiser: Sparked to make a difference

Naropa professor, students plan return to Cambodia to teach art therapy

Poppies by Erin Shannon

The drawing shows a purple bird’s nest holding five eggs, each a different color, balanced on the limb of a tree. Filling the sky around the tree branches is a crowd of birds, open V shapes drawn in orange pastel. It’s a simple drawing, but a big story.

The image, and the story it carries, is one of more than Sue Wallingford can count that came from a trip to Cambodia in May. Wallingford, assistant professor at Naropa University’s art therapy program and faculty advisor of the Naropa Community Art Studio-International, and seven of her students, went to Cambodia to volunteer in a home that rehabilitates and reintegrates girls rescued from sex trafficking. She’ll return this May with a group of 10 students, expanding the program to visit more locations and work with girls as young as 5 who have been victims of trafficking and teach the staff working with those girls to use art therapy to rebuild skills often lost in trauma, like problem-solving.

The bird’s nest drawing was done by a 15-year-old girl, Srey Ka, who lives in the shelter. At the invitation of Ka’s therapist, Wallingford performed the bird’s nest assessment with her, an art therapy technique meant to draw out and gauge attachment to and feelings toward family from childhood. Ka’s therapist thought she was dealing with attachment issues and PTSD from years of sexual abuse and torture.

As Wallingford coached, Ka sketched out the purple and blue lines of a nest, then Wallingford prompted — what was in the nest? Ka drew the five eggs.

“At one point, I asked her, ‘What does the bird’snest need?’ And she said, ‘It needs to be taken care of. It needs someone to take care of it, but she’s flown away and she’s far,’” Wallingford recounts. “And I said, ‘Well, would you like for me to draw that in the picture?’ So I drew the bird, but far away because she wasn’t ready for it to be at the nest.”

Wallingford kept drawing birds, and looked to Ka’s therapist and a translator helping with the assessment and asked if Ka would like them to help. The three gathered around the drawing.

“We ended up enveloping this tree, this nest, with all these birds to take care of this nest,” Wallingford says. “She just visibly relaxed, she just was like, she took a breath and said, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ And I reflected to her, I said, ‘This nest must be really special for all these birds to want to come see it.’”

‘Hanging Love Charm’ by Merryl Rothaus | Courtesy of the Naropa Community Art Studio-International

The experience has fueled Wallingford to keep expanding the program, increasing the length of the stay and the number of students, taking them to even more challenging settings and adding new programs, like one to teach women to make handicrafts that can then be brought back to the U.S. to sell, and a mini-conference on using art therapy for the staff and clinical teams of an organization that supports 50 shelters for victims of trafficking in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.

“It’s really important that this be a sustainable project — and it has been,” Wallingford says. She returned to Cambodia for three weeks in November to check up on the programs, and said the evidence that what she and her students had taught was being used was overwhelming.

“I think one thing that’s happened, too, as a result of having been there, rather than just me knowing a little bit more about the culture and knowing what to expect and all that, is the social justice piece — the piece around really wanting to make change,” Wallingford says. “I just can’t be complacent any more. There’s that quality of, I’m sorry but I cannot just let something like this go unnoticed. That drives me a lot.”

‘I Burned My Hand Pouring My Heart Out, but It’s OK Because I’m Reminded I Can Feel’ by Sarai Nissan | Courtesy of the Naropa Community Art Studio-International

“You go to countries as a tourist and there’s a little bit of a nice boundary for you to really understand fully what this country has experienced and the trauma that’s there,” says Danielle Rifkin, who has traveled and volunteered in Cambodia before but will return with Wallingford to practice and teach art therapy. “Really trying to understand, by being able to sit with all these people, what their experience has been I think will be really different for me.”

Wallingford and the students going with her to Cambodia this year have organized the second annual matchbox art auction gala, Small Resources = Big Possibilities, for April 12 to fundraise for the trip. They distributed matchboxes around the community to use in art pieces that have since poured back in to Wallingford’s office and will be auctioned at the gala.

“There’s a definite business aspect to all this, just getting prepared for the gala itself,” says Emily Wilson, who brought eight years of experience as a corporate project manager to organizing the gala.

They’ve done community awareness and fundraising to keep the program sustainable, but the purpose goes beyond raising money, Wilson says.

“Even more than that it’s such an outlet for community awareness and to really bring a dialogue around these issues and to let people know what we’re doing. People get excited.”

Small Resources = Big Possibilities matchbox art auction gala will be held at 7 p.m. April 12 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th St. All proceeds will benefit the Naropa Community Art Studio-International. Tickets are $30 and are available at


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