Ashley Anson started learning to draw by referencing her coloring books when she was about 6 years old. It became a passion, and when it came time to choose a path after high school, she chose art.
It didn’t work out on her first pass, and since then she had held a number of other positions, including attorney and United States Army recruit.
But she has come full circle and is ready to return to her love of art with the opening of Healing Hearts Haven, a studio that aims to provide after-school activities aimed at keeping kids from trouble-making behavior by providing productive instruction and pastimes through methods such as painting and yoga.
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“I’ve always been into the arts since I was really young,” Anson told the Mitchell Republic. “I went to art school initially and dropped out. My mom had a hand in that – she said I was too smart to waste my time doing dream stuff that wasn’t going to pay the bills.”
She returned to school and obtained a number of degrees, eventually finding a new niche in law school at the University of South Dakota, which began her journey into the world of criminal justice. The Wessington Springs native found herself defending youth who had found themselves in trouble with the law.
While helping those youth with their legal entanglements, she looked for ways to help them outside the courtroom.
“There was one case in particular where the judge took me and the state's attorney aside and initially indicated that he would like other options for the youth instead of sending them to the juvenile detention center in Sioux Falls,” Anson said. “I looked at him with my hands up in the air and asked, 'What options?’”
Without a mental health diagnosis, the youth did not qualify for acceptance in certain programs, and sending him back home under supervision was a likely path to recidivism. She knew the youth did not have a stable home environment and that returning him could make the problem worse.
“He didn’t have the greatest home setting, and I walked out of there feeling pretty hopeless. Helpless, actually. I didn’t know what to do for him and I felt like there had to be options for these kids,” Anson said.
She began to develop a program based on the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, a juvenile justice system improvement initiative set on community collaboration to provide the best possible outcome for youth and access to justice. She began working with the Davison County branch of the Evening Reporting Center where she held classes in art, yoga, gardening and cooking on a one-night-a-week basis. She enjoyed the work and her students seemed to respond well to her instruction and the activities.
Soon, she decided to expand the program on her own, and secured a location in the Northstar Plaza on Main Street where she is preparing to open Healing Hearts Haven on Jan. 3, 2022.
The studio offers creative classes such as yoga, painting, drawing, creative writing, sensory play, cooking classes, reading hours and team building to offer services to families in the community. The mission is to provide access to productive and creative outlets for youth of all backgrounds in hopes of offering children healthy activities to propel them to a brighter tomorrow, she said.
Anson said providing a positive energy environment for kids who may otherwise lack such a place to retreat to can be extremely beneficial to their well-being.
“I feel something like this gives them something productive to do. It gets them out of their situation at home where they may be dealing with parents who are coming down on them in inappropriate ways. And they may be being told by professionals and other people that they shouldn’t be talking back, but they still need an outlet,” Anson said. “So they come here and they get to express themselves in a safe environment.”
Anson is certified to teach yoga from kindergarten to age 18, and is pursuing certification to teach adult classes. She picked yoga up in an attempt to overcome past trauma in her own life, and found it effective. So she understands how yoga can help one center themselves and focus.
As a trained artist, she will offer classes on painting and other artistic forms. The new studio space already has some student art pieces from her previous classes adorning the wall, some of which are for sale to help fund the new venture. Students are welcome to keep their artwork or leave it behind for admirers to purchase, Anson said.
In addition to her law degree, she also has a masters in environmental law, which gives her a connection to her gardening and cooking classes.
It can be a little difficult to maintain enthusiasm in some of her students, she said, but they generally, eventually, respond quite well to therapeutic effects of the activities.
“For most of the older teenagers, I have to be pretty inventive. I do something called blackout poetry, where they take a random page out of a book and they underline a word in each line as you go down to create a poem,” Anson said.
One girl in the class did the exercise but didn’t think what she had created made any sense. Anson went over her word choices with her, identified potential themes in her selections and asked her some questions.
The girl's eyes widened.
“She looked at me with a look like – how did you know that? It’s interesting to see the things that can come out subconsciously, and it hit her pretty hard. She looked at me a different way after that and came to class with a different attitude,” Anson said. “If I can touch a kid that way, that’s what I’m really aiming for.”
Anson is currently taking applications through the studio website at www.healingheartshaven.com, where more extensive information on the program is also available. She said she can take up to 15 students per session, as she is currently the only full-time employee at the studio. She said Healing Hearts Haven is not strictly for disadvantaged or troubled youth. Any student can find benefits in the world that provides a positive, therapeutic environment in which they can thrive.
The studio held its grand opening Friday, and the doors will officially swing open Jan. 3. There is more preparation work to do, and there will surely be a few growing pains as she settles into a new routine, but she is looking forward to starting the latest step in her own life while simultaneously lighting a path for her young charges to follow on their way to their own productive life.
She wants her students to know they can find their own way to a better life if they apply a little focus.
“You have to enjoy the journey. I look back and it’s interesting how every step along my path looks like it doesn’t connect, but it really does. Every single one,” Anson said. “I’m super excited to see the response from the community, a lot of people haven’t heard of it yet, but I think when I get it up and running it may be overwhelming. Part of me is nervous about 20 kids coming to my door and being ready to go, and the other part of me is anticipating it. I’m excited.”