Gloria Simoneaux founded DrawBridge in 1989 and developed a highly effective method of helping young people work through complex emotions associated with housing insecurity and family challenges using the creative arts. She retired from DrawBridge after serving 19 years as its Executive Director. In 2007, Gloria received a Fulbright fellowship and founded Harambee Arts, an international arts therapy organization for children and women in Kenya and Nepal. She received a second Fulbright fellowship in 2017 and taught trauma-informed expressive arts therapy at university in Haiti. Gloria holds a Masters in Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
DrawBridge welcomes back Gloria after 15 years to lead a workshop deeply rooted in her unique expressive arts programs and intensive work with children on the ground in Nairobi, Kathmandu, and Haiti.
What ignited your passion for serving children?
I love children, number one. I am particularly drawn to working with children in difficult situations who are experiencing illness or neglect. It’s always been that way.
Why do you think that is?
I’ve always been a free spirit, and there wasn’t any room for it in my traditional family. I could never fit in, and didn’t feel what I had to offer was valuable. So I suppose I want to give all children the experience of feeling deeply seen and loved.
How did your life of service begin?
I started volunteering in the pediatrics unit of a Brooklyn hospital when I was 13. I have no idea how I got there, but I knew right away that’s where I wanted to be.
After school, I traveled around the world for ten years and started little programs wherever I was — Peru, Spain, Amsterdam. I instinctively used art as a way to teach English and connect with the kids.
I came back to the US looking for something meaningful to do and volunteered for the Children’s Cancer Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center. Nobody wanted to go there; it was too terrible, too scary, and just what I was looking for. It was real.
Busy people were around but no one just sat with the kids and listened, holding a space for them that was warm and loving. I became obsessed with learning how to do that, and eventually the hospital put me on staff as an art therapist. I’d never even heard of art therapy! But I was given a badge and stayed for eight years. Everything I know I learned from those kids.
What was the inspiration for starting DrawBridge?
My brother was a doctor in the Tenderloin when homelessness was just taking hold in San Francisco. I saw a lot of kids when I visited him. Within a short time I’d started an expressive arts group at Hamilton Family Shelter, and raised money to expand the program into more facilities. By year three or four, the program officially became known as DrawBridge. I stayed for 19 years.
Most recently, you produced a coloring book, You Are the Star of This Story, with your Harambee Arts team in Kenya as a social-emotional outlet for children coping with the pandemic.
This workbook was developed by children in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, together with the local Harambee Arts community. It consists of carefully selected prompts designed to help them safely express their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately gain a sense of control over their lives. It’s been incredibly well received throughout Kenya. I’m thrilled the book has been printed in the US and will be available to Bay Area kids through the DrawBridge program.
What’s it like returning to DrawBridge after so many years and offering a workshop based around the book?
Being able to do this together with [Executive Director] Tracy [Bays-Boothe] and [Program Manager] Sarah [Yazdani], it’s just thrilling!
Learn more about Gloria and the important work of Harambee Arts at http://harambeearts.org/