WESTFIELD, NJ — When 13-year-old Riley Whitlock received an assignment from her seventh-grade art teacher to express her emotions about the COVID-19 pandemic, she had no idea that her artwork would give her the opportunity to support the mental health of thousands of other students.

Whitlock and her family are selling T-shirts and photo wall tiles featuring her artwork, with all profits going to the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that provides guidance to children struggling with mental health and learning disorders.

“I feel like art is a really great way to unite people,” Whitlock said. “When things get too overwhelming it is a great way to express yourself instead of just keeping everything on the inside.”

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Whitlock’s piece, created with a digital drawing app, features a shadowy creature inscribed with the number 19, towering over a small, vulnerable figure. According to Whitlock, the piece expresses her personal feelings regarding current events surrounding the pandemic.

Whitlock’s art teacher, Helen Frees, noticed her talents.

“The contrast of black being the evil virus with its corona spikes, and the dripping claws leading to a halved figure on the ground ... her work is perfectly balanced,” said Frees. “The use of the number 19 and the expressive face and the way the white figure holds their body ... I immediately wrote to Riley telling her to share it in our class slideshow with everyone and wrote to her mom.”

Frees submitted Whitlock’s work to an online art gallery in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and recommended to Whitlock’s mother that she make shirts displaying the piece.

Whitlock and her mother, Mary Wickens, decided to sell the shirts purely to donate to charity, as they both recognize the importance of mental health during times when teens are unable to see their friends or carry on with the normalcy of their lives.

“We thought, with the message she was trying to send, a way to help other teens was to sell it [the shirts and prints]. Not to give ourselves a profit, but to donate it to a cause that can help other kids with mental illnesses,” said Wickens.

The Child Mind Institute guides parents, professionals and policymakers to support kids struggling emotionally through school programs and community endeavors, according to Wickens.

“It [the artwork] definitely shows my feelings towards what’s happening right now,” said Whitlock. “I’m definitely a bit overwhelmed with all that’s happening, currently.”

To purchase a shirt or a photo wall tile with Whitlock’s artwork on it, contact Mary Wickens at wickens72@yahoo.com and send the money for the purchase through Venmo at @mewickens. Orders will be taken until June 1.

Shreya Jyotishi is a sophomore at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Westfield.

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