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ARTreach: Changing lives, one kid at a time

by Ella Hearrean

Eleven-year-old Adam* pushes up a sleeve of his blue jumpsuit and dabs meticulously at a corner of a canvas with his paintbrush. After several quiet moments, the resident at the Fort Bend Juvenile Detention Center pauses, his face bright. “I remember painting with my dad once. He told me I was a natural,” he says with a smile.

Adam has earned his spot in a painting workshop provided by ARTreach, a nonprofit organization that partners with social service agencies to provide art-related programs to the underprivileged and underserved. ARTreach is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and the group takes pride in its Mentoring Through Art program, which serves troubled and at-risk children like Adam. The program pairs children with art professionals who teach painting, music, dance, screen printing, photography, rap, or poetry. The measurable successes are undeniable: Children who channel their energy into art are more cooperative, confident, and hopeful. They also score higher on tests, are less likely to drop out, and express themselves in healthier ways.

Terri Bieber, the director of ARTreach, explains its impact. “Most of us take art for granted because it’s always been a seamless part of our lives. But many children who live in poverty, who have been abused or neglected may not have been taught the value of art or the value of themselves. They didn't grow up seeing their art work on the fridge."  When these children produce art, their pride is evident. “For the first time, they have something to share that is appreciated and respected.”

Today, Adam and nine other residents of the detention center, ages 10 to 17, hunch around a table to finish a mural of military servicemen in the recreation room, a sweet respite from their bleak dormitory cells. They murmur to each other while they paint, their voices a steady hum that blends with R&B tunes grinding slowly from an old stereo. A ping pong table is pushed to one side, and artwork and poetry cover every inch of every wall: their makeshift fridge.

The residents’ offenses range from running away to shoplifting to capital murder, but they display surprising work that reveals a longing for innocence in their chaotic lives. Their tattooed arms, some healing from stab wounds, have colored cartoon characters like Tweety Bird and Pokémon. They’ve assembled Mickey Mouse puzzles, have written poems about hope, and have drawn Jesus on the cross. Their past ARTreach projects line the walls as well, including canvases of sunsets in pastels and a mural of historical figures like Pocahontas and Mohammad Ali.

When Adam’s voice rises above the din, their recreation director, Angelo Infante, promptly reminds him to focus on his work. Bieber says Infante is pivotal to the success of ARTreach’s Mentoring Through Art program because he values both discipline and art -- his guitar is tucked in one of the closets. A former drill instructor, correctional officer, and serviceman in the United States Air Force, Infante says his background helps him command the respect and admiration of juveniles whose feelings range from relief to fear or anger. “I tell them they’re the future and that I want them to know there’s hope.” He says that an “oasis in the desert” like the Mentoring Through Art program is a powerful incentive for good behavior and provides the softness that is sorely lacking in the juveniles’ lives. “When they see that the community cares for them, they care about the community.”

Elizabeth Linder, the professional painter who is leading the workshop, embodies the spirit of a loving community and perfectly complements Infante’s strong male leadership. A soft-spoken woman, Linder leans between two boys to add paint to the mural. She has been teaching them about the history of Van Gogh, encouraging them to paint in his impressionistic style while also admiring their handiwork. Linder recalls her initial fears when she first volunteered for ARTreach seven years ago. “I didn’t know what to expect. What if they’re some angry mob? But Angelo runs a tight ship -- the kids are always prepared and respectful.”

Because residents view artists like Linder as community members rather than authority figures, they let down their defenses and express themselves freely. They learn that expression can be constructive: They spray graffiti on canvases instead of buildings, rap lyrics about hope instead of killing, and screen print tattoos onto shirts instead of their bodies. As a result, Linder sees their deep satisfaction and healing. “Their eyes light up. Some say that this is the first time they’ve done something right. Some begin to consider a career in art.” She remembers one  insightful comment from a quiet resident. “She said that art can correct a person’s personality, that someone who is impulsive or impatient must slow down and wait on the process. Art can’t be pushed or forced.”

Hours later, Linder celebrates the completion of the painting by passing out cupcakes, a reminder that Van Gogh’s paint strokes resemble the whirls in icing. The mural will be installed in a couple of weeks, and Bieber will invite court judges and probation officers to recognize the accomplishment. She works persistently to remind the public of the importance of ARTreach, which relies on donations and grants from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies. “Our funding has decreased because people focus on physical needs -- they don’t understand that art is just as critical as a pair of shoes,” she says. “We’re always looking for volunteers and donations so we can keep reaching kids.”

Since its creation in 2003, ARTreach has impacted over 2,500 children per year through its Mentoring Through Art program. Social service agencies, teachers, professionals, volunteers, and donors are celebrating 10 years of partnership in teaching and motivating troubled kids like Adam. For now, Adam looks up from his masterpiece, mouth full of cupcake, and says triumphantly, “Sweet victory!”

To donate to or volunteer for ARTreach, go to www.artreachonline.org.

* Adam’s name has been changed to protect his identity

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor.

ARTreach is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides mentoring and art-related programs to a growing population of children at risk, children and adults with special needs, the elderly and others in need.