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Natalia Chapovalova

Art therapy in Belarus

When Natalia Chapovalova mentored children at the Boys and Girls Club in Binghamton, she would often draw portraits and encourage the students to draw self-portraits.

“I’ve always been aware of the power of art to help people and add something valuable to their lives,” she says.

Chapovalova turned to art when she decided to pursue a Harpur fellowship to help children in Belarus who have suffered from the aftereffects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The 21-yearold created an art-therapy program for young children from the contaminated zone in Belarus’ Gomel region. The UKbased organization Children of Chernobyl takes the youths each year to a camp in the small village of Ptitch, Belarus, where they are able to get away from their daily lives in orphanages and institutions.

“These children have mental and physical handicaps that are mostly tied to the habitation in that region,” says Chapovalova, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, moved to the United States at age 5, and now lives in Westchester County. “People with disabilities are stigmatized in Russian culture. In America, we have more acceptance and more programs for them. But in Belarus, there are fewer outlets for the children.”

Chapovalova spent the month of August working with about 100 children — ages 7-14 — in groups of 30 at a time.

“I’m going to have them create a chapter book of their lives,” she said before leaving Binghamton University for the trip. “Every day, they’ll get huge pieces of paper to make a new chapter: What are your favorite things? Who are you? They’ll draw and paint in free expression. It’s about releasing emotions — talking about everything from who you are and where you come from, to hopes for the future and what they might be afraid of.”

Chapovalova also worked with the staff members and caregivers from the various orphanages and institutions on how to continue the arttherapy program in the future.

“You can have a program like this once and it will help the children,” she says. “But if you never have it again, it will become obsolete. I want to provide the caregivers with ideas to take to their own institutions. Even the contaminated region that the children are escaping for the summer can become a haven for them.”

The art-therapy program is just one step in Chapovalova’s long-term plan to help Chernobyl victims.

“It’s my ultimate goal to work in that region of the world and study the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster,” she says.

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Last Updated: 3/1/17