NATICK, Mass. (March 1, 2012) -- When David Faigin took delivery of the book, he knew he held a smash hit in his hands.
Never mind that it would never find its way onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. In fact, he couldn't care less that not a single copy would ever be sold. Faigin saw the "Heroes Activity Book" as an invaluable resource for those he cares most about -- veterans and their families.
The book had sprung from the fertile mind of Steve Russell, senior illustrator with the Technical Publications Team, Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, at Natick Soldier Systems Center, after he had seen flyers requesting coloring books for wounded warriors. Russell sought to take that a step further.
According to Faigin, a community psychologist with the VA Maine Health Care System in Augusta, Me., Russell did just that with the 29-page, 11-by-17-inch activity book, which was filled with illustrations, word searches, other brain teasers and associated stories meant to entertain, challenge and occupy veterans and their families.
"I think the most compelling thing about the 'Heroes Activity Book' relates not to its obvious uses in art therapy, occupational therapy, or recreation therapy, though the book surely can and should be used in this way," Faigin said. "The most critical use for the book may be to connect active-duty service members and veterans to their children. Art has the means of transcending spoken language and building bridges of understanding.
"The mix of themes in the book -- fun, creative, informational, patriotic, etc. -- offer a variety of entry points for a parent to share their experience of service with a younger person, as well as learn from that younger person's ideas and perspectives. The complicated sacrifices involved in serving our country are not always easily addressed with children directly, and I feel tools like the 'Heroes Activity Book' allow for a space to gently address these."
That's the kind of impact Russell had hoped for when enlisting the support of colleagues on the Technical Publications Team and artists from the Maine Illustrators' Collective for what became a two-year project. Some 1,400 copies of the book were produced in the initial printing with funding from Army Community Services at Natick. The books were distributed free to groups and facilities supporting wounded warriors from Maine to California.
Russell hopes to produce a second volume this year. Work is already under way, but he still is actively recruiting volunteer contributors.
"I guess the biggest challenge is getting other people involved, because it's a donation of their time, their creativity," said Russell, who lauded his wife Barbara for understanding his own investment of time in the project. "I'm trying to stir other individuals' creativity and interest. We invite anybody and everybody to submit to us. Just send it in."
Russell can once again count on colleagues Donna Leon and Rachel Grady, each of whom contributed to the first volume. Leon was instrumental in getting all of the initial contributors to sign copyright releases for their works.
"Here you are with a lot of original works, especially from the artists, that they could use, potentially for profit," Leon said. "So now we're looking for more support for the second volume.
"It's something that we enjoy doing, so it's not a task. It's something that we want to do, and that makes it even better for us. It's each person being able to give a little bit of themselves to meet one end goal."
Grady used her connections to get books distributed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. And her creative juices are flowing again.
"I've already got a Word document started with every idea that comes to me," Grady said, laughing. "I'm very excited about offering something to the next book."
Andy Barclay, Technical Publications Team leader, said the activity book has become a "great team-building effort. It also really helps to provide that support for the wounded warriors and for the families."
That's something that Faigin has seen firsthand at the VA.
"I feel that high-quality productions like these play a key role in the ways that artistic activities are helping our warriors share their stories with one another, with family, and with the wider society," Faigin said. "Just as a public showing of warrior art is an important piece of this puzzle, so too are books like this that are hands-on, accessible to everyone, and portable."