Art and equines help kids open up

Mental health counseling doesn’t always look the same.

Youth Shelter Services in Marshalltown knows there is more than one way to help clients. Director David Hicks and the team have been thinking outside the box on ways to give effective services.

Thanks to a partnership with Marshall County Arts and Culture Alliance, art therapy has been a fresh approach YSS is taking. The alliance provided art supplies for the youth, giving each the chance to create, express and share with paintings and clay.

Upon a visit to YSS downtown, several paintings can be seen displayed on its walls which were created by clients in recent months.

“We have a dozen or so paintings by the kids we serve that allowed them to express how they’re feeling,” Hicks said. “They take a lot of pride in that.”

Hicks said some kids who might not be as open in a traditional therapy setting ended up talking a little more while working on their art.

“You’re painting your fears; painting your hopes. Through art, there have been a lot of breakthroughs,” he said. “This is really the first time we’ve seen that; using art and allowing kids to quote-unquote speak.”

The success YSS has had with art therapy has been encouraging but the nonprofit isn’t stopping there. Later this summer it will give equine therapy a try.

Ryan Keller, mental health therapist with YSS, is trained and experienced in equine therapy. He will bring clients to Rapha Reins, which is about 10 miles north of Marshalltown.

“Horses tend to reflect the emotional status or behavioral status of the client,” Keller said. “So in order for the person to be able to work with the horse, they have to be able to work on themselves. It’s a living metaphor that we get to work through with the clients. The horse is just enough of an appropriate distraction to help them to be able to grow and confront their mental health needs.”

The Marshall County Community Foundation gave a grant to YSS to pay for the operating costs of equine therapy so clients can take part without any out of pocket costs.

There are already a couple clients signed up and there is room for more. Hicks said they will either be able to take five clients to equine therapy six times, or six clients five times. It depends, in part, how sign ups go. Putting together the plans for equine therapy has been in the works for about a year.

COVID-19 brought the United States’ mental health crisis to the forefront over the last year with many people feeling detached, lonely and anxious. While many are feeling relief as their world begins to look closer to normal, Hicks said little has changed for people struggling with mental health issues.

A change back to ‘normal’ is still a change that can bring about anxiety. The start of a new school year which most likely resembles a pre-COVID school year is just one cause of anxiety for young people. Hicks hopes giving some of his clients equine therapy starting as soon as August could help with this transition.

“It’s really a process of healing and it’s important not to hurry that,” he said. “There’s not some magic speech and you’ll just be fine. It will take time and adjustments. Feeling anxious and nervous and sad doesn’t make you a negative person. It just makes you a person. Transitions are hard but kids are resilient.”


To learn more about Youth Shelter Services or if you have interest in supporting the nonprofit organization, visit yss.org or call the Marshalltown office at 22 N. Second Street.


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