Printable Version
Send Page to Friend
Bookmark this Page








Beautiful Collaborations

Nonprofit group opens hearts wherever it goes

By Ella Hearrean

“I’m nervous!” says a Fort Bend County high school student as she steps up to a microphone. She is one of 150 student volunteers who have mobilized across Fort Bend County one Saturday. One group records spoken word compositions alongside foster children at Parks Youth Ranch in Richmond; another group stamps clay designs at an ARTreach studio in Sugarland. A third group cooks traditional meals with teenage refugees in the community of Rio Bend in Richmond.

These emerging leaders are part of the Youth in Philanthropy (YIP) team, a group of 11th and 12th grade students selected by the George Foundation to experience volunteerism and philanthropy in the nonprofit sector. “Every Fort Bend County high school is represented by these kids,” says YIP coordinator Dee Koch. In addition to developing students’ generosity, leadership skills, and connections to the community, Koch says participating in YIP is an eye-opening experience for the students. “Many are surprised at the commitment it takes to be a true volunteer.”

The unifying thread between these programs is ARTreach, a nonprofit organization that is celebrating its 10th anniversary of partnering with social service agencies to provide art-related programs to the underprivileged and underserved. Executive Director Terri Bieber says collaboration produces many benefits. “When we partner with others, we share resources and expenses, are more efficient, and combine our creative energy.”

That creative energy is evident at Parks Youth Ranch, a nonprofit foster facility that provides a safe environment for at-risk or homeless children. YIP volunteers and residents are listening intently to Chris Gamez, regional director of ARTreach, who uses his appearance and words to bridge the gap between him and the kids. The 35-year-old singer and dancer wears a hat turned backwards and jeans slouched around his waist as he recounts his troubled childhood to the group.

“I get them to identify with me, to believe in me, and then I turn it around to believe in themselves,” he says. He raps about his wife and kids, retelling how his passion for break dancing developed into a successful career as an adult. Gamez tells the teens that their gifts and talents will make way for their purpose, and he encourages them to compose and record their own spoken word.

“I feel like it was directed at me,” says a 16-year-old resident.  She looks up from the lines she’s written and wipes her eyes. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still here. I still have hope.” When they are done writing, Gamez combines the teens’ lyrics into one page and gathers them in a large, hushed circle around a microphone. At his signal, their voices grow from a timid beginning into a strong, unified chorus. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the recreation room, sneakers tapping, it is difficult to distinguish the volunteers from the residents.

 

Shannon Bloesch, executive director of Parks Youth Ranch, says the collaboration between the foster facility, ARTreach, and the YIP team deeply impacts the children. “It’s good to see these groups come together and work. A program like this fosters leadership, teamwork, and creativity. Many of the foster kids say, ‘I didn’t know I was talented.’ It gives them something to look forward to, an outlet to release emotional baggage.” The YIP volunteers are impacted as well. A senior high student says, “At first, I was motivated to join the team because of scholarship opportunities, but now that I see how others live, I realize how fortunate we are.”

Across town, YIP volunteers are cleaning their tables at an ARTreach studio in Sugarland. They have designed hundreds of clay Christmas ornaments to be used in an upcoming project for senior citizens, who will paint and sell the creations. And in Richmond, more YIP volunteers are painting the final touches on pasta bowls at the Rio Bend foster care community, where they have spent the day cooking the traditional meals of its international residents: Burmese Noodles, Korean Beef, Honduran Chorizo and Rice, Congolese Cassava Leaves and Fufu, and Gambian Chicken and Beef Benachin. Recreation Specialist Sarah Greer says the painting project neatly sums up a day of collaboration: “One foster child painted in her native language, ‘Food brings us together.’”

Since its creation in 2003, ARTreach has joined forces with YIP as well as over 30 other social service agencies and 10 school districts to bring the arts to neglected populations. The art outreach organization shares the responsibility for the funding and development of impactful art programs, relying on grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts and on donations from countless others: individuals, churches, charity groups, foundations, businesses, corporations, and friends. Bieber works persistently to collaborate with as many programs as possible. “People are often surprised to find out how many programs we support. We’re here to help them reach their goals to serve the needy.”

At the end of the day, Gamez plays back the words and music that were recorded by the group at Parks Youth Ranch. The students clap, hoot, and high-five in celebration of their completed product, talking excitedly as they file outside and back to their lives. The record continues to play, even after the room is empty, a lingering legacy:

“To my dreams I strive;

Determination is where truth lies.

Love is here; love is now. Love will never leave you down. . . “

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

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based 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.