MKAF’s Warrior Arts Brings Hope and Resilience to Veterans Throughout Northwest Florida


By Will Estell

If you live among the coastal communities of Northwest Florida, you have likely become aware of the Destin-based Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation (MKAF) and the outreach this wonderful organization does to promote the arts within the growing communities it serves. One such initiative by which the MKAF staff, board and members bring such support and healing is the charitable organization’s Warrior Arts Program.

Warrior Arts Melanie Moore teaching virtual WA zentangle classWarrior Arts partners with local, state and national veteran service organizations and military partners to offer creative opportunities that promote mindfulness and resilience for our nation’s heroes and their visible and invisible injuries. It is widely recognized that artistic activities can prove to be a great tool for individuals undergoing both mental and physical rehabilitation, those with PTSD and a wide array of other conditions that often affect our veteran community. Everything from improved cognitive function and memory, to increased attention span and even eye/hand coordination has been shown to improve through the performance of visual arts.

Many physicians, scientists and mental health professionals agree that the arts can provide opportunities to process, express and reframe negative past experiences and assist in staying in the present moment. MKAF’s Warrior Arts Programs offer the opportunity for individuals in need to experience many aspects of these empowering processes, through simply making art, doing something new and gaining artistic skills. While relaxing and therapeutic, it’s also fun.

Mattie Kelly’s Warrior Arts Program sets out to accomplish all the above through its curation of multiple specific programs, including everything from the Zentangle drawing method to painting to jewelry making to improv comedy workshops. Additionally, the Warrior Arts Program is actively partnered with veterans centers in the immediate and surrounding counties that MKAF serves, as well as working alongside the EOD Warrior Foundation, AFSOC Warrior C.A.R.E. Summit, AFSOC Preservation of the Force and Family, AFSOC Peer Supporters, AFSOC Commando Caregivers, Air Force Wounded Warriors and Special Operations Wounded Warriors, and other such organizations that are working toward the common goal of bettering the lives and conditions of our Northwest Florida veterans.

As a MKAF board member, I’ve had the pleasure of attending some of the outreach events the nonprofit orchestrates, as well as getting to hear about the real change and positive impact that the Warrior Arts Program helps bring to fruition. I asked MKAF’s Director of Education and Community Engagement, Melanie Moore, to tell me in her own words what the Warrior Arts Program means to MKAF and to her as the staff member responsible for creating Warrior Arts and bringing it to life in our coastal communities. “It is our great honor to give back to our heroes by offering meaningful art experiences that promote resiliency and holistic healing. While it is easy to say ‘thank you for your service,’ we have taken that a step further to invest in over 100 art programs per year for our area’s active duty and veteran military personnel, with an all professional teaching staff, free of charge to MKAF’s Warrior Arts participants. This segment of our Northwest Florida population has sacrificed so much to secure our freedom, so I feel the least we can do, individually and collectively, is to embrace our military community in the best way we know how, through creative opportunities curated especially for them.”

I couldn’t agree more, but what proves the benefits of Warrior Arts, more than anything, are the words from those who’ve seen its remarkable impact first hand. As you can see from this small sample of the testimonials MKAF’s Warrior Arts Program receives, this is the real catalyst for continuing to offer this help, hope and change.


In 2004, while piloting a helicopter for the Army, I suffered a devastating crash. After awaking from a coma four days later, I discovered that I had a Traumatic Brain Injury and extensive nerve damage. The majority of my fine motor skills on my right side were limited. I struggled with simple tasks like writing my own name. So, as expected, flying a helicopter would be virtually impossible. Fearing I may not regain full use of my dominant hand, I began to teach myself how to write with my left hand. Learning how to hold a pencil was the first step. Eventually I realized if I could teach my left hand how to master those skills, I could re-learn the same skills on my dominant hand. Initially I began learning how to make the letters of the alphabet. Eventually I was able to create letters and form words that I could actually read. From there, I began to draw creative patterns and straight lines, then connect those lines and create images. Soon I developed smoother and neater pencil strokes. Within a few months I had regained about 80% of my fine motor skills. By the end of the year I had regained full control of my right arm, hand and fingers. Years later I was introduced to Zentangle by a close friend. It was simply a stress-free, no-fault method of creating beautiful patterns. It became clear to me that I wanted to share this helpful healing art with everyone. I decided to become a Certified Zentangle Teacher, and the rest is history.
—CW3 Charles Burkett, Certified Zentangle Instructor

I write to you in great appreciation for the support you showed in the recent PTSD retreat I attended in Destin, Fla. As a 23-year veteran, with 14 combat deployments, adapting back into the civilian world can be difficult and stressful for both the member and family. The art technique that Miss Melanie Moore introduced has helped me both focus and obtain the inner calmness I need. I brought the art set home your foundation provided and enjoy sharing the meditative process with my 10-year-old daughter. Again, I thank your foundation and especially Miss Melanie for the time and support you showed. We do what we do for great people like you.
—Rob, Special Operations

Your programs come at a great time…saving lives…and protecting the livelihood of thousands is just as important as squeezing triggers. If showing a veteran the technique of drawing on a small [paper] tile to relieve their stress and anxiety can prevent a veteran suicide, then that is the most important thing in their life!
—Charles, Special Operations

I want to say thank you for your time, in Destin while I was at the Elk Foundation PTSD retreat. I really appreciate you supporting our veteran community and introducing something a little different into our lives. I want you to know that I have continued with the Zentangles and truly enjoy the process. I have attached a photo of my latest drawing. I hope you like it and I plan to continue.
—Rico, Special Operations

This program continues to have a huge positive impact on our veterans and military members. Your passion, vision, artistic talent and resources are the reasons for this. Thanks for continuing to expand the program, adding Charles Burkett for more Zentangle groups and partnering with Estelle Grengs Art for painting classes. I’m a true believer that the creative process enhances our lives and helps one heal.
—Janet Paulus, Veteran Therapist and Air Force Veterans

To learn more about Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation, along with this and other outreach programs this organization makes possible, visit

Will Estell is a writer, media entrepreneur, and real estate professional with over 600 published features in an array of publications. As chief creative officer of Estell Hussey Media, LLC, and the Editor-In-Chief of Navarre Beach Magazine, during the past 26 years, Will has been instrumental in founding 12 new magazine titles from concept to fruition, as well as serving as editor for others.