BERLIN — Reconnecting with his artistic roots after a deployment to Afghanistan, a local veteran is using the proceeds from the sale of his art to fund a support group to promote mental health.
"It's changed my life entirely. I've gained a sense of purpose,” said Christopher Durao, of Berlin, who has been selling screen printed shirts and designs since 2017 and launch the support group around eight months ago. “I feel like I've changed so many perspectives in life and the way that I think about things through resilience and all the value from the community that has been given to me...”
The group, Gathering of the Rain Dwellers, first met at Elizabeth Park in West Hartford and recently began renting space at MAC 650, a Middletown art studio, for its once-a-month sessions.
“A rain dweller is a term I coined which is what I call members, and they all call each other now... someone who has endured the storm in their mind and can now go out and help others seek shelter," Durao said.
Each of the group’s meetings are centered around a theme and typically begin with meditation and a reading from an article, story or poem that fits with the topic they’re discussing for the day. It usually prompts group members to share their own stories or thoughts.
“We ask the prompt question that helps people intuitively share their story and then come up with their own medicine for healing," Durao said.
A fellow Afghanistan veteran, Ryan Ward said the group has been a major help in managing his PTSD.
“To be able to go to a place and be 100 percent yourself and be honest is huge,” he said.
Though they served overseas at the same time, Ward didn’t know Durao until he interacted with the online community around the online store where Durao sold his clothing, Resilient Supply Company. When Durao started the support group, Ward joined and has watched it grow from around eight members to 30.
“The tribe that we’ve accumulated is so eclectic. There's people that are in their 50’s and 60’s that are there and late teens,” Ward said.
After he returned from Afghanistan in 2013, Durao had difficulty returning to civilian life. He tried training to be a police officer or EMT before getting his commercial driver's license and working as a trucker. Following a panic attack while driving through Pennsylvania, which led him to take a train back home, Durao began experimenting with screen printing with his father, who helped him build his own press.
"Prior to the Army, I had done a lot of art,” Durao said. “I used to like to draw comic books and write stories a lot. I kind of lost touch with my creativity when I joined the Army and then I came back and transitioning back I — I don't know — was searching for my purpose.”
He began selling the artwork while visiting the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Newington and before he started the support group donated some of the proceeds to mental health organizations.