How 'Colour our Story' is connecting children around the world through the magic of art

In his paper, Therapeutic Use of Expressive Arts with Children, Don Phelps (PhD, LCSW) recalls his time volunteering at Mexico’s Casa Hogar Los Angelitos (CHLA) orphanage in 2011. Like many orphanages in Latin America, it was under resourced, and home to children who had been traumatized by gang violence, prostitution, drug abuse, and assault.  

However, CHLA was unique among orphanages, in its inclusion of arts programmes.

In his year-long sabbatical, Phelps found that these cultivated creativity, and helped children work through their emotional trauma. Indeed, developmental literature highlights the importance of art in contributing to positive mental health, and a sense of wellbeing in children. 

During a recent volunteer mission at Orphfund's orphanage in Kasese, Uganda, graphic designer Michelle Euinton felt there was more to be done with art in the developing world. Euinton, originally from Zimbabwe, envisioned a way to bring the magic of art to the most disadvantaged groups in developing nations, while at the same time, affording them a platform to tell their story to their counterparts in the developed world. With this in mind, she launched Colour our Story from her home in New Zealand last year.

The premise is simple: children in developed nations create stories and draw pictures, which are made into colouring-in books; these are sent to schools and orphanages in developing nations, where children read the stories, colour them in, and create their own stories to send back. It builds on the pen pal model of yesteryear; 21st century enough to capitalise on modern technology, but old-world enough to feel a human connection.

Why colouring in? “It’s so easy!” Euinton exclaims. And she’s right.

It doesn’t take much to set up an event, and with Pencils Community recently donating a pencil case full of stationery for every child she visited, the barriers couldn't be lower.

Furthermore, there’s mounting research showing that stresses from being raised in poverty can damage a child’s cognitive development, and alter mental function into adulthood. Children are innately thinkers, daydreamers, and storytellers, and Colour our Story nurtures this in a way we take for granted in the developed world.

An initiative in Africa, the Mobile Art School in Kenya (MASK) builds on the research, to work towards social, personal, and economic development through art clubs and workshops. A recent paper found the programme positively affected student's empathy toward one another, and fostered an environment of creativity.

“This is about so much more than drawing pictures. It’s about helping them express what’s going on.”

The real beauty of Colour our Story, however, is that it’s a two way street, benefiting the children in developed, and developing nations. Euinton explains:

“It gives the students in disempowered positions the opportunity to tell their story, and on the other side, giving kids who want to be involved and make a difference, an opportunity to”.

Euinton recalls how the more art she made with kids in Uganda, the more it connected them to the kids on the other side.

“The children would always be posing questions; ‘Do you have this, or that?’ Yes, yes, we do” she laughs, “‘Tell them we have squirrels’ they’d say”.

While it connected the kids to a degree, Euinton felt as though she was always in the middle, and it wasn’t as meaningful as it could be.

 “[This is] the first time they had a chance to have a conversation with kids from somewhere else; it had always been an adult. Just this curiosity, this creativity; it’s something that will develop into something much deeper, and more meaningful.”

Colour our Story is cutting out the middle person, allowing the children to have a direct conversation with one another.

“[They] couldn’t wait to do their drawings” she says; “they had a much better understanding of where it was going, and what it was for.”

Still in its infancy, Euinton has been modestly collecting sheets from events in Auckland and Melbourne, and credits Cindy and Monique from Pencils Community for helping her get the books printed atInHouse publishing pro-bono. With a little help from design students, she has made hard-copy books, and taken them to Africa herself; but the opportunities for growth abound.

While she readily admits she’s not business minded at all (Euinton jokes that her sister Claire, founder ofMake, Give, Live got it all), Michelle is a dreamer, full of a thousand ideas, and a with certain magic about her. She speaks wistfully about her experiences with the children in Kasese's Orphfund orphanage, and has a clear vision for the future.

“One goal of mine with the money I raise from these books is to go towards creative arts for these kids, as it’s such a luxury. Having that firsthand experience a few times, knowing how much they loved it, and what they get out of it” she pauses; “just knowing that they’ve taken so much pride. This is about so much more than drawing pictures. It’s about helping them express what’s going on.”

This cuts to the core of why Colour our Story exists, and indeed, why giving the poorest of the poor an opportunity to create, learn, and grow is so important.

When looking back at his time with the orphans at CHLA, Phelps would go on to say that:

”Completing a work of art or finishing a performance in the presence of supportive peers and adults can raise a child’s confidence and self-worth. By creating and sharing in a safe and supportive group, children are able to break their sense of isolation and shame.

With an opportunity to give that to children living in poverty, often suffering from emotional trauma,Colour our Story is bringing humanity into the space, and allowing these children to enjoy their childhood.

Phillip has an undying love for willow trees, and desperately wants to spend an evening with the ghost of Emily Brontë. He spends his time coaching teams and executives to find better ways to work, and supporting our Cause Corps teams around the globe. When he's not buried in a book, barbell, or yoga mat, you'll find him making friends with stranger's animals, or travelling the world to visit the haunts of his favourite authors.