Art therapy is among the many programs offered at Portage Academy, where specialised and dedicated instructors like art teacher Martha Bahula are inspiring residents to renew their interest in their studies. In art therapy classes, practical projects teaching basic drawing, painting, and sculpting skills are challenging students to expand their horizons and express themselves creatively. According to Martha, “it is through the process of artistic thinking that a very therapeutic environment gradually flourishes, especially when it is facilitated with perseverance, patience, and music.”
Small class sizes allow Martha to work closely with each student. She credits the school structure as an essential part of her students’ success, allowing teachers to give individualised attention in order to balance the needs of the residents. “One day, the academic level takes priority,” she says, “and the next day, perhaps the therapeutic aspect needs fostering.”
Martha acknowledges the role that teachers play in helping students to embrace learning, especially those for whom school was not previously a priority. She believes that when teachers work to foster a safe, comfortable, and engaging environment, it breaks down the barriers to communication and trust. In turn, students can better self-evaluate and reflect on their accomplishments, leading them to realise their potential.
After ten years in the graphic industry and occasionally working with co-op high school students, Martha began teaching with the Upper Grand District School Board, which oversees educational programming for Portage Elora. She eventually transitioned into the classroom at Portage. Developing strong bonds with her students and seeing how proud they are of their artistic accomplishments are very satisfying aspects of Martha’s job.
“They used to ask me if I could be their mother,” she jokes. “Now, after 24 years in the classroom, they ask me if I could be their grandma! Yet for me, the most endearing comments reveal their appreciation for art, becoming self-aware of their growth and progress, realising that everyone is an artist in their own right.”
All Portage rehabilitation centres for youth provide mandatory on-site school programming, recognised by local school boards and adapted to the needs of the residents. Whereas in the past many Portage residents have struggled with school and some have even abandoned their studies altogether, Portage Academy helps them rediscover their academic abilities and often reawakens the drive to complete secondary school and even to go on to post-secondary studies.