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Painting a path of hope for homeless youth through art education

Tuesday - 5/14/2013, 8:31am  ET

For more than 20 years, Project Create has worked to promote and provide arts education and enrichment in children, youth and families in the District. (Courtesy Project Create)

Rachel Nania,

WASHINGTON - In the areas of D.C. that experience 40-50 percent of homelessness and poverty, one local organization is making sure art is accessible to underprivileged youth.

For more than 20 years, Project Create has worked to promote and provide arts education and enrichment in children, youth and families in the District. Its programs offer everything from African dance and drumming, to theatre, improvisation, stand-up comedy, sculpture, drawing, painting, photography and more.

Project Create Executive Director Create Christie Walser says the importance of arts education goes beyond introducing children to a new subject matter.

"A lot of people ask me, ‘Why arts education? Why art for children that are experiencing homelessness?' It doesn't seem like an easy answer, but it actually is," says Walser, who explains there are more than 2,000 D.C. youth living in homelessness.

"The thing that we see in the children who have survived homelessness and extreme poverty is that they're so busy often working on survival skills, that they aren't invited to be imaginative and creative and playful and artistic," she says, adding that when the organization starts working with children, they often have no access to art and play.

Project Create teaches its 15-week classes on a weekly basis at various afterschool settings, or in shelters and homeless facilities. The organization's classes target children from 5 to 18 years old, youth from 18 to 24 years old and young mothers and their children.

"The idea behind that is that we can hopefully hook some kids in with a variety of offerings," Walser says.

The organization's instructors -- many of them artists, themselves -- lead the lessons.

"They really become not just teachers, but mentors to the children," Walser says.

Jessica Plocher has worked as an instructor with Project Create since 2010. In her role, Plocher designs lesson plans and then delivers the lessons to her students. This year, her class focuses on famous artists and artwork.

"In the Matisse 'Painting with Scissors' lesson, we discussed and then identified organic and geometric shapes and talked about what makes Matisse's compositions unique," explains Plocher when describing a lesson. "I then instruct the students on how to create similar works. Once the artwork is complete, I 'interview' each student about what they've made."

Plocher, who works at a full-time program associate at a private foundation in D.C. and volunteers her time with Project Create, says her favorite part of each class is hearing what the students have to say about their own work.

"They are proud to show you what they've created and enjoy being asked to speak about it," says Polcher, who has worked with an estimated 40 kids at three different Project Create sites. "It gives them time to reflect on what they've created and receive positive one-on-one time with an adult, giving them a boost of confidence."

Recent research from the National Endowment for the Arts shows that children and teenagers who participate in arts education have shown more positive outcomes in both academic and social settings than those who did not participate in the programs.

Walser says she's seen, first-hand, how arts education has dramatically impacted children.

"We really enjoy introducing them to the process of thinking creatively and expressing themselves and communicating through art, so we are able to introduce life skills into our lessons so it becomes a lot more than just teaching art. It's teaching skills they can use later in life," she says.

"The classes give students a safe place to express themselves, which is crucial, especially since youth may not have this opportunity or safe environment at school or in their home life," Plocher adds.

Walser explains that while it's hard to keep track of all of Project Create's former students, due to the transitory nature of the youth and families with which the organization works, it has seen some students go on to do great things with art.

"I can tell you about one little boy. We have a young student named Tayvon who's at one of our centers, and he is a real, promising young artist. And I am quite sure that he will go on to do big things in the art world," Walser explains.

At least half of the programming is funded through private organizations. Project Create also has two grants from the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities. However, it also uses funding from benefits and fundraising events to grow and sustain its programs.

On Thursday, May 16, Project Create will host its fifth annual Art Auction and Benefit. The event will feature a variety of work, curated by Reyes + Davis Independent Exhibitions. Work from the students at Project Create will also be on display throughout the evening.

"We're making lasting connections, hopefully, and we'll continue to encourage them beyond just their short time with us," Walser says.

"It is important that each student know that he or she is talented and have people who believe in them,"Plocher says.

More information on Thursday's art auction can be found on Project Create's website.

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