Hearts of Fire, the project Bob Ballard created in Landmark Education's Power and Contribution course as a way of connecting homeless people to art and music, is flourishing. In July, the group received 5013C nonprofit status from the IRS. This summe, Hearts Afire has toured Southern California, visiting homeless shelters and putting on art and music workshops. August has seen Hearts of Fire tour Los Angeles County, and September will see the organization visit shelters in and around San Diego.
A premier video from last year's Hearts of Fire pilot tour has been released: Finally, the Ventura County Star recently wrote a story about the project:
Project Stirs Artistic Side of Homelessness
by Cynthia Overweg
With an elegant swirl of her paintbrush and a dollop of yellow to represent a blazing sun at the center of an impressionistic-style artwork, Andrea Houchin and her 11-month-old son, Luis, put the finishing touches on a watercolor painting they had just created together.Houchin's playful infant immersed his hands into a gob of color on a palette made from a plastic plate. The boy then "signed" their original artwork by pressing his tiny, paint-covered hands on the canvas."Luis is the reason I keep going. When I look at him, I know what love is," said Houchin, 27, who lives with her child at the Lighthouse Women & Children's Mission in Oxnard. She said she was evicted from her apartment about two weeks ago because she couldn't pay the rent."I had nowhere else to go. We're lucky we're not on the street," Houchin said. "Creating art with Luis makes my day a lot brighter."
Houchin and her son, along with more than 100 homeless men, women and children, were part of an art workshop presented Saturday at the Ventura County Rescue Mission in Oxnard by the Hearts of Fire Project.
The Ojai-based nonprofit organization, founded three years ago, wants to change public perceptions of the homeless.
In a donated recreational vehicle, the Hearts of Fire Project has toured homeless shelters throughout the United States for almost two years, bringing art and music into the lives of the homeless. "Our mission is to elevate the conversation about who homeless people are — they're part of the human family with an important contribution to make," said Bob Ballard, 55, Hearts of Fire executive director. "We want to give homeless people the opportunity to be seen and heard through the expression of art and music — to connect their humanity with our own."
Rescue Mission director Carol Roberg credited Ballard with filling a need that resonates throughout the homeless population.
"It's a very lonely lifestyle. It's almost as if their feelings are locked in prison," Roberg said. "What Bob and his organization are doing helps homeless people get in touch with themselves and others."
After sinking into a deep depression following a divorce, Euvaldo Garcia Jr., 38, a participant in Saturday's workshop, said his life spiraled downward and he ended up living in his car.
"I couldn't shake the depression and tried to commit suicide, but the gun didn't fire. Then I got into trouble with drugs," Garcia said. He said he voluntarily went to the Rescue Mission five months ago because he knew he needed help.
He painted a representation of the hand of God reaching down to pick up a fallen leaf on the ground.
"I'm that leaf," Garcia said. "The painting brings out what I've been feeling. It felt good to watch it happen."
Funded by private donations and his own funds, Ballard brings art supplies and music recording equipment to every shelter the group visits. He said he came up with the idea of a mobile arts program when he was living in Boston and regularly encountering homeless people on the street.
"I used to try to avoid homeless people when I saw them. Sometimes I'd give them money, but I didn't want to make a real connection," said Ballard, a songwriter and musician. Ballard said he challenged himself to think and act differently about the homeless.
Because of his love for music, he made a music video two years ago with homeless people as a way of getting to know them and their world.
"I saw a spirit in them to cope with things that most of us would have a hard time facing. I was inspired by their courage," said Ballard. "It was like seeing a burning flame within them — maybe that's what happens when all the material things are taken away."
Ballard said that after completing the video, he and his wife, Gayle, the group's secretary and treasurer, visited some relatives in Ojai and decided to relocate to Ventura County. "We fell in love with Ojai and brought Hearts of Fire with us," Ballard said.
Hearts of Fire kicked off its 2008 shelter tour on June 7 at the Transition House in Santa Barbara. On June 11, the workshop traveled to the Turning Point Foundation in Ventura, where about 50 homeless men and women participated in an outdoor art and music workshop at Plaza Park, said David Deutsch, program manager.
"The workshop gave them a chance to feel encouraged and optimistic about what's possible," said Deutsch. "Homeless people are stigmatized in our society, and while it's true that some have serious problems and need a range of services, it's also true that homelessness can happen to anyone who has a streak of bad luck."
Marika Zoll, a clinical psychologist who specializes in art therapy for the homeless and other at-risk populations, said creating art can help raise self-esteem and encourages positive interaction with others. She helps Ballard facilitate the shelter workshops.
"So many of the homeless are fleeing the horrible feeling of You're not good enough.' The process of art-making has a positive effect on the brain — when you express yourself creatively, it's therapeutic," said Zoll, of Ojai.
Susan Justice, Hearts of Fire director of development, said the program is designed to give the homeless a sense of empowerment. "Many of them take on an identity of being homeless, as if that's all they are, when there is so much more to them than that," Justice said.
She said that the biggest challenge for the organization is funding and that the nonprofit organization is now in the process of applying for state and federal grants.
"We have an all-volunteer staff and in order to get paid, we need some angels," Justice said. "The work we're doing is making a difference in the lives of people who need our help."
To find out more information, go to the Hearts of Fire website: