05/05/2016 01:21 EDT | Updated 05/06/2017 05:12 EDT

How The Arts Saved My Life

Betsie Van Der Meer via Getty Images
Close up of hand painting with brush.

I live in Victoria, BC but I'm about to get on a Toronto-bound plane to celebrate the 20th anniversary of DAREarts, a national program that introduces at-risk kids from ages 9 to 19 to music, dance, architecture, literature and fine art. I was one of the first people to benefit from the initiative when it started in 1996.

To be honest, I don't remember the specifics of what I learned about Mozart, Baryshnikov and Rembrandt. What I remember, though, is how it gave me the coping mechanisms to get through the worst parts of my childhood: poverty, severe bullying, an absent father, an abusive boyfriend with an addiction problem. Now that I'm a mother myself, I continue to pull from the lessons I learned through the arts, which gave me the strength to escape, to strive and to create a better life for myself and my daughter.

I started the program during the most challenging year of my life. I was in grade 4, but had already been called names like slut and weak. My mother was at her limit and my biological father was absent (in fact I didn't know who he was until I was 17). The school principal was aware that our family was having a hard time -- my brother was frequently in her office, frequently facing suspension­­ -- and did me the greatest favour of my life and recommended that I enrol in DAREarts.

The program taught me that while I could not control my surroundings, I could control how I responded to them. Crucially, it also challenged me to be invested in something, to take responsibility, and to focus on the positives. I remember sitting with the program's founder, Marilyn Field, stuffing envelopes with fundraising letters, talking with her about how we could make lives better for so many others. I felt like I was a part of something. I had purpose. It'a happy memory from a time that was filled with chaos.

That's not to say that the rest of my childhood was a fairy tale. When I was sixteen, my boyfriend told me that he loved me and wanted to be with me forever. I wanted love so badly, and he promised it to me. I got pregnant. After I had my daughter, I realized that he would never deliver on the love and life he promised me and my daughter. He was an crystal meth addict, and once again, I had to pull myself out from an abusive, negative situation.

This is where the lessons I learned from the arts really came in. I learned the creativity needed to problem solve throughout life and I had an outlet to pour out my feelings of helplessness when I needed it. The benefits weren't just in art classes. I became a leader in almost every school project, and finished high school with honours and an award. I went to college.

Today, I have a full-time job with a pension and benefits. I own my own home and have been in a committed partnership for eight years with a man who has been a true father to my daughter. Making life better for her is a true team effort. We both work very hard.

My biggest accomplishment is my thirteen-year-old daughter, who is capable of anything. She has never known the poverty that I lived through, or endured bullying. Today, she attends Montessori school and volunteers at a local seniors' home. She is a leader in her class, loves debating, and is a graphic designer for an Instagram Taylor Swift fan page. Her dream is to earn a doctorate in Psychology at Stanford University. We have even toured the campus as she really wanted to see it when we were in California on the way to Disneyland.

Kids who have been given a rough hand in life need and deserve the lessons taught by the arts to reach their full potential and to give back to society. When vulnerable youth are in a program such as DAREarts, they bloom like flowers. They go from being these isolated kids who are vulnerable or timid and don't want to do anything to being kids who are eager to take on just about any new task.

By the end, they are painting, acting, performing, problem solving -- and they are part of the team. I sometimes wonder if my daughter's father had a program like this when he was a kid, if he would be able to know his little girl today: the ocean colour of her eyes and her beautiful compassion for others. His life was no easier than mine; I just had DAREARTS, where he had nothing.

DAREarts turns 20 this year with a celebration and fundraiser at the Carlu in Toronto. For more information, please visit DAREarts.

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