One of the joys I have of leading natural history safaris to Africa is to show people who have never been there the awesome wildlife, people, and scenery. Watching their reactions when first seeing a lion, a few thousand wildebeest, 18-foot tall giraffes, or a herd of elephants passing by our vehicle becomes emotional for a lot of people including myself. And, so it was with college student Meaghan Heeks and her family when they saw their first herd of elephants in the wild in Tanzania.
I asked Meaghan to explain how she felt about seeing such magnificent “gentle giants” while on safari. She told me a remarkable, inspirational story about the healing nature of art therapy by painting some of the animals she saw on safari at a time in her life when she needed help from an injury. Here is her story in her own words.
“I am currently attending Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, in pursuit of my Master of Arts in Art Therapy and Counseling degree. I completed my Bachelor's degree in art therapy as well. I am in my third (and final!) year in my Master’s program, and I am scheduled to graduate in May 2020.
“My journey to art therapy has been complex, but in of itself, a crazy adventure. Back in 2009, I experienced a TBI (traumatic brain injury), which had turned my world upside down. I was taken out of school and began weekly doctor's visits. I was not allowed to look at TV, computer, and phone screens or books, and was encouraged to spend most of my time in a dark room to avoid overstimulation. To make a very long story short, one of my doctors suggested I try to make art to cope with what was happening, as well as promote some activity while I was away from school. Several other life events took place along the way, which have continued to pave my way towards art therapy. Currently, I am working with adults with disabilities using art therapy. This has been such a joy for me, and I hope to continue working with this population in the future.
“In regard to my elephant painting, I completed this for a class assignment, in which I had to represent my family as an animal. This was based off one of my photographs that I had taken in Tanzania, and just knew that my family would be represented by an elephant. Their compassion, love, protection, resilience, and grace were so moving for me, and this is how I view my own family. Their strong presence will always be a part of my life.
“Our trip to Tanzania in 2019 was life changing and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to travel with my family. I had so many moments on the trip where it felt like a dream, and as you recalled, I had gotten very excited and cried for about 30 minutes when I saw the elephants. The impact of their natural beauty and freedom was so profound to me, and I couldn't believe that I was experiencing this is real life. I am so grateful for you, Tom, and my Aunt Leslie [Stoltz] for bringing us all together. It still feels like a dream when I look back on pictures and videos!”
Be sure to see the 1 ½-minute video, Gentle Giants, at this website http://www.apg-wi.com/price_county_review/opinion/ to see visually why Meaghan felt the way she did when she and her family saw elephants in the wild for the first time. It was truly life-changing for her and the rest of the people on safari to experience an elephant herd pass by within feet of our safari vehicle.
When it’s used, art therapy helps children, adolescents, and adults explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability. For more information on art therapy, go to this website: https://arttherapy.org/