Art for youths’ sake

NOTE: The following text is unedited and thus may differ somewhat from what appeared in the Kansas City Star. You can see the Star’s version at the Van-Go site (PDF).

Star Magazine cover: teen holds her hair out of the way as she paints bench.

Art for youths’ sake

By Janet Majure

Colorful benches, eye-catching jewelry and public murals are the most visible products of Van Go Mobile Arts Inc. in Lawrence. The real results, though, are in the critical life skills its teenage workers learn: Showing up. Showing up on time. Meeting deadlines. Taking direction.

Van Go’s method, says founder Lynne Green, is to use “art as a tool to reach kids in need.”

Eight weeks on the job

The tangible products of the summer Jobs in the Arts Make Sense (JAMS) program are one-of-a-kind wood benches that the youthful employees create for individuals and businesses who order them for $800. The student-workers get a lot done in the eight-week program: Each one meets with his or her client, develops a preliminary design, makes a full-size mockup, meets a second time with the client for design approval and adjustments and then sands, primes, paints and seals the bench in time for a ceremonial unveiling.

The teens say it’s fun, but it’s also a job. They get paid, and they get a daily dose of employer expectations in the “real world.” They can get fired from JAMS, but the program aims to teach them what they need to do to stay employed, here and elsewhere.

A multicolored wall chart lists the students and provides boxes for each task they must complete for their benches. At the daily morning meeting, Cathy Ledeker, the Van Go art director, reminds students that their second appointments with clients are coming up, and program director Jim Lewis adds, “That means we have got to stay focused. I may impose some quiet time. We cannot afford to be distracting other people.”

As the meeting winds down, several people offer “fun facts.” Daiyna Vann, 18, reports that everyone swallows on average six spiders a year, setting off a chorus of groans; Green says cardinals mate for life; and summer art assistant and graduate student Mark Watson tells the group that the sea cucumber “spews its guts” when attacked. No one seems to know what a sea cucumber is or how to react to that information. As the meeting concludes, each person in the circle rates his or her stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, and then goes to work. They’ll rate their stress at the end of the day, too, one more thing Van Go does to help kids function well.

Finding a way

Van Go logoVan Go grew from a midlife career reassessment for Green, now 59. She had worked as a school social worker, taught emotionally disturbed children, sold real estate and operated an art gallery in downtown Lawrence, which was when she first started thinking about something like Van Go.

“I wanted to figure out a way other than a traditional psychotherapeutic kind of way to reach kids,” she said.

A lifelong art lover, she heard about programs elsewhere that created public murals and other public art projects that gave the youths “something meaningful and something fulfilling.”

“This was not a new concept, to use public art to give them something meaningful,” Green recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to do that here. I can do this!’ I felt confident about the art piece. I felt very sure this could work here.”

A couple of years and lots of planning later (and while Green’s parents supported her), Van Go opened for business with the idea of bringing art to “at-risk” children ages 8-18. The organization bought a used van from the school district and did a few projects. It soon became apparent, though, that services were relatively plentiful for children up to age 13, but older kids lacked similar opportunities.

It took creativity to find the right opportunities for the older teens. Van Go tried to engage teen-age boys through a writing and performance program called Express Male. Green recruited, through the schools and the county juvenile corrections department, a dozen youths for a six-week program. Only five finished.

Then Green attended a conference in 1998 that provided the inspiration to add job training to the mix.

“It became the underpinning for JAMS for 14- to 18-year-olds,” she says. There was even money available, through the Workforce Investment Act, and the first JAMS effort began in 1999.

Jobs make sense

Many at-risk teens that Van Go targets come from low-income households.

Green realized, “If we pay them and we are hiring kids who need money, then we can wrap the additional services around the child.”

Suddenly, Van Go was jammin’.

“We hired kids with needs: poverty, mental health, foster care, in trouble with the law,” Green said. “We always had twice as many kids (as jobs). We had tapped into a huge void in the community. It was just overwhelming how many kids were being sent by schools, Bert Nash (Community Mental Health Center).”

Since then, JAMS has hired about 90 youths a year, including after-school sessions and more-intensive summer session. Each kid at Van Go works an average 100 hours a year through JAMS. Now more than 95 percent of the youths typically finish the sessions.

The school-year art projects tend to be smaller than the benches made in the summer. In the fall and spring, they make jewelry and other wearable and decorate objects for use in the home, such as painted trash cans. The projects vary from one session to another. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, Van Go sells the fall creations in its Adornment show. The January Super JAMS program creates items sold in a Valentine theme sale in February. The spring term typically has them painting a public mural and creating objects that are auctioned off at the summer fundraiser, What Floats Your Boat, a nautical themed party that raised about $60,000<about; getting actual figure> on June 21 this year.

It can be stressful work for the staff. Green gets frustrated with the constant need to seek money. And Lewis, who the Van Go people call Mister Jim, not only oversees the JAMS program but wears the mantle of surrogate father and rule-enforcer. Sometimes, he admits, he doesn’t feel like being the authority figure, but he does it anyway. “Boundaries are what makes them secure,” he says.

On task

On the job this summer, the teens busy themselves with their bench projects.

This is the first year for Tony Pelligreen, 17, a slender youth who sits on the floor as he applies paint to his mockup of a bench for Marty Kennedy, a former Lawrence mayor, Van Go board member and businessman. Tony has had other jobs-food service and grocery stores-but this one is more fun. “It feels like school, and I like school,” he says.

Mia Brantley, 21, lends a hand, and a paintbrush, to Tyler Tenpas, a chatty 17-year-old, whose bench is for the Lawrence Family Vision clinic. Brantley is employed in the Life JAMS program. Tyler, in his first year with Van Go, says, “It’s a little hard at first coming up an idea, and then we went through several different sketches” to arrive at the design they would present to the clinic staff.

In the adjacent room, an ancient opaque projector blows up another student’s sketch from 8 1/2 x 11 copy paper onto 4-foot lengths of white paper taped to the wall. On the opposite wall, Kyle Ostrom-Klaus, 18, dabs paint on his full-size bench mockup and talks about how he’s become more open since participating in JAMS programs. Kirsten Bittinger, 16, tall and dark-haired, works with Watson as she completes her sketch. This year, her second, Kirsten’s client is Lori Tapahanso of Haskell Indian Nations University. Kirsten is excited to be using Indian themes.

“I’m Navajo,” she says. Her sketch includes the memorial arch at Haskell and familiar emblems, such as that of Kokopelli, a god of several native peoples in the Southwest. Watson encourages Kirsten to add something in an open area on her sketch, and says, “yea, that’s good,” as she pencils in a detail.

Leaving their mark

The Van Go programs have left their marks all over Lawrence. Newspaper sales boxes painted in Van Go’s bright palette mark street corners Downtown. Benches from past years sit in front of and inside shops and banks. Countless people wear necklaces and earrings made by Van Go artists, and murals decorate the entrance to the Lawrence Public Library and other structures, not to mention Van Go’s building at 7th and New Jersey streets. Participants who complete the program receive Van Go T-shirts and a video that staff makes of their session.

“It’s amazing how many kids will tell me, ‘I watched my video,’ or take people to show them their bench,” Green says. She emphasizes the importance of the public aspect of the youths’ artworks in helping the participants feel a part of the community and a sense of pride in their work.

Except for the public affirmation that those works provide, those aren’t the marks that Green is interested in, though. She points to an alumni gathering last year, the JAMS program’s 10th, where a young woman from the very first JAMS program gave a testimonial.

“That for me, that’s everything. That is everything,” she says. “To feel like you’ve changed one girl’s life is big.”

One youth at a time

Cindy Trarbach, a social worker at Lawrence Free State High School, praises the program’s success in teaching teens to show up and be on time.

“Giving any kid that kind of experience is wonderful, and to be able to do it in such a unique and interesting way is just awesome,” she said.

Lewis, who has been the program director since the inception of JAMS, says his sense is that Van Go does best with teens who start at 14 or 15 years old and stay involved in the program for five or six sessions. He notes that it takes more than eight weeks for the teens to achieve the amount of growth and confidence the staff hopes for.

A survey of former JAMS participants, conducted by Jessica Clatterbuck and Tom McDonald of the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, suggests that many participants have benefited. Some 77 percent of those surveyed said they were more prepared to find a job as a result of JAMS, and more than 70 percent agreed they were both more responsible and more confident.

That’s what it’s all about for Green.

“We are here to change lives for the better. It’s not small potatoes. I believe we can do it. I see that we have done it,” she says.

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Timeline

  • 1996    Van Go Mobile Arts Inc. officially organizes as a 501(c)3 corporation, meaning it is a not-for-profit charitable organization.
  • 1997    With $2,000, Van Go conducts its first program, “No Face Like Home,” with 16 children in grades 4 through 6. Founder Lynne Green calls it Van Go’s most ambitious and lowest-budget project.
  • 1998    Green visits Gallery 37 in Chicago, which inspires her to develop the JAMS program to address the paucity of social-service programs that help at-risk teens over the age of 13; Van Go receives its first grant funding from the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, which gets JAMS off the ground.
  • 1999    Van Go rents its own space.
  • 2002    Van Go adds Life JAMS for 18- to 21-year-olds.
  • 2005    Van Go is named winner of a Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
    Capital campaign to purchase, expand and remodel the Van Go building gets under way.
  • 2007    Van Go completes $1.5 million capital campaign for building acquisition and expansion.
  • 2008    Van Go receives the 2008 Kansas Governor’s Arts Award for an arts organization. The award is presented June 26 at Washburn University.
    Construction and renovation project begins, and Van Go offices move into remodeled space.
  • 2009    Van Go to complete move into renovated building; new program, The Arts Train, to get under way.

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The Arts Train

When Jobs in the Arts Makes Sense, known as JAMS, is successful, its participants leave with critical “soft” job skills, such as how to show up on time, get the job done, work with others and work without supervision. These young people don’t necessarily leave, however, with specific, marketable job skills. The next Van Go program, now in development, aims to teach those skills.

The Arts Train, as it is being called, will provide training in real-world, arts-related jobs that don’t necessarily require college education. Van Go founder Lynn Greene points to studies that show “how important it is to … help create productive members of the community” through job training.

“Most of them are kids who have received very intensive services but…school ends, and they fall off the face of the earth,” she says. “What we’re seeing is that they become more vulnerable, more at risk when they turn 18. They have no social support, and they literally become homeless…This was what we were seeing.”

The Arts Train seeks to remedy that. Van Go intends to hire a full-time coordinator for The Arts Train in January and be ready to start with 12 apprentices in September. The apprentices will learn job skills for three occupations: construction and woodworking; graphic design and print-making; and painting and home interiors. The workers also will continue to develop their soft skills and individual life plans that prompt them to plan for health care and finding employment and a place to live.

All material is copyright 2008, Janet Majure, and is not to be reproduced by any means without the express permission of Janet Majure

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