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The winning entry, “But on the Inside,” by Army Veteran Maria-Eliza Cabarrus.

Therapeutic and rehabilitation benefits of crafting are well-known to those who’ve experienced them firsthand, but advocates want more people to understand what a powerful healing tool it can be, particularly for the nation’s veterans during this time of increased isolation and anxiety.

To raise awareness of the healing and unifying power of crafting, the non-profit Help Heal Veterans recently hosted a nationwide online art contest honoring Veterans Day called “Craft & Salute.” Open to all, veterans, crafters and families submitted art pieces depicting what military service or patriotism means to them. Submissions included mixed media, digital art, sculpture, blacksmithing, woodwork, performance art and body and face paint.

The prize winners were:

First Place: Maria-Eliza Cabarrus, an Army Veteran from Maywood, Ill. who created a sculpture entitled, “But on the Inside.” Cabarrus turned to art as a way of healing from an injury sustained in the Army. Her piece depicts the injury, which ultimately catapulted her to her true calling—making art that inspires others.

Second Place: Sherman Watkins, a U.S. Air Force Veteran from Hampton, Va. who submitted two paintings he called, “Black History V-I-P,” and “The Quilt”. Taking two years to complete, they illustrate the accomplishments of Black Americans.

Third Place: Ting Du, a Navy Veteran from San Diego, who submitted two wood sculptures she called “Sail Boat of Hope” and “Beacon of Light.” They symbolize the days and nights she spent at sea and the hardships she navigated. “Even during the darkest nights with the most difficult conditions in the ocean, as long as we can see the beacon of light within our own hearts, we will be able to find our own path back home,” says Du.

Winning entries will be displayed at military hospitals and VA facilities throughout the U.S., and the three top winners will be awarded a Southwest Airlines gift card for $1,500, $1,000 and $500 respectively.

“Through Craft & Salute, we wanted to share and elevate the healing power of crafting,” says Joe McClain, retired Navy captain and Help Heal Veterans CEO.

For almost 50 years, Help Heal Veterans has supplied free arts-and-crafts kits to veterans and active duty military recovering from wounds, injuries and long-term psychological effects of warfare. These kits can provide many therapeutic benefits, including an improvement in fine motor skills, cognitive functioning, memory, anger management and dexterity. They also help address symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. In a recent survey, 94 percent of respondents said the kits helped them have a more positive outlook on life, and 89 percent said the kits helped relieve their pain.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for effective coping strategies has only grown, according to McClain, with millions of veterans on lockdown and experiencing increased isolation, boredom and anxiety. Not surprisingly, Heal Vets has seen a huge increase in demand, shipping nearly 290,000 craft kits to veterans since the beginning of the pandemic, including deliveries to over 90 VA medical centers, a large number of domestic and overseas military bases, state veteran homes and other locations where the need is great.

To view the winning pieces and learn more about the Craft & Salute competition, visit bit.ly/CraftAndSalute. For more information about craft therapy and the work of Help Heal Vets, visit healvets.org.

“In today’s unprecedented environment, we hope to inspire others to bring about positive change by managing stress in creative ways,” says McClain.

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