Sunday, August 23, 2009

Program aims to help disabled vets find their inner artist

From the Detroit Free Press:

A Farmington Hills, Mich., man is set to distribute art kits to disabled veterans through his new nonprofit.

Ray Bakerjian (pictured), who served in the U.S. Army from 1974 to 1977, has been an artist all his life -- mainly for fun, although he's sold a few paintings here and there. Looking for a way to help veterans, Bakerjian started volunteering at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit about two years ago. He teaches art to vets there once a month.

Through his volunteer work, Bakerjian said he learned that his students -- mostly men in their 50s and 60s -- were expressing themselves in different ways through art. The idea for the Wounded Artist Project was born.

"These soldiers have a lot of downtime while they are recovering," said Bakerjian, 52. "This can help by giving them something to do."

The Wounded Artist Project, which Bakerjian launched earlier this summer, seeks to put art kits -- containing art books, a sketch pad, pencils, erasers and an instructional DVD -- into the hands of disabled veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He plans to distribute a few dozen kits at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in the coming months. Bakerjian also hopes to make the kits available to every disabled veteran through donations to his nonprofit organization.

According to Hubert Hess, chief of staff for Michigan's Veterans Affairs Directorate, there are 69,531 disabled veterans in Michigan, out of about 724,000 veterans.

Each kit costs about $25, Bakerjian said, and he's looking for donations, grants and other fund-raisers.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, has been assisting Bakerjian with his project.

"This program is a means for a soldier who is holding things within him or herself to express themselves through art," Harris said.