NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK–In 1991, a handful of artists decided to work with homeless teenagers to create art in New York City. More than 20 years later, the nonprofit Art Start has transformed young, at-risk lives with art workshops, many of which take place in shelters in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, in November 2013, there were an estimated 53,270 homeless people in New York City; 22,625 were children. Even though Art Start kids live in these shelters, on the streets, are involved in court cases, or are surviving with parents in crisis, local teaching artists and educators donate their time and guidance to nurture their creativity and talents.
“The more we worked with the families, the more I was impressed by their strength and determination to provide their children as much normalcy and consistency as possible in a challenging situation,” says Johanna De Los, executive director of Art Start for the last seven years.
“My personal connection to the mission is, when I was a teenager, because of circumstances, I had a really, really hard time. I had destructive habits and I didn’t live with my family,” she adds. “The high school theater was like a sacred church to me when I was so vulnerable; it really could have gone any way for me. The arts really did save me from a path that would have been so much more challenging.”
Art Start uses a student-centered approach to education. Workshops are designed to instill confidence in their students and help them discover what they have to offer. They also teach critical thinking and help students pursue meaningful opportunities, despite their situations. After 22 years, this organization has reached over 22,000 youths and enlisted over 11,500 volunteer teaching artists.
Art Start offers four main programs to their students. The Homeless Youth OutReach program is fostered through partnerships with city-run and nonprofit shelters. Art Start educators and volunteers set up creative workshops at these locations where each student can learn choreography, song writing, recording, and other forms of artistic expression. This program meets the increasing demand of the high record number of over 1.1 million U.S public schools enrolling homeless children and youth (U.S. Department of Education). In 2013, Art Start hosted 395 workshops, accrued 2,866 attendances and served 557 New York City youth.
The Youth Offender Outreach is a program offered to those with open court cases. Art Start provides a creative outlet during this crucial window where they can redirect their energy towards more positive goals. Based on the studies by Citizens Crime Commission, 49.4% of youths released from detention facilities are readmitted. Art Start prides itself on instilling values and personal development within each of its constituents. Last year, there was a total of 395 Youth Offender Outreach program workshops and 130 NYC youth offenders were served. youngmichael, a 16 year old student of the program, has accomplished many creative projects. “One project I am proud of is producing my song, “I’ve been with Art Start, performing, dancing, rapping, acting, producing, anything you can name.”
Using available technology, the Across Borders Concept helps students connect with others in different states and countries, building a larger community of support.
The Emerging Artist in Residency (EAR) program is a six months program where students face a demanding schedule of coursework. EAR develop management, leadership and social skills through project management, entertainment showcasing, and internships. “Art Start has better my life. It actually helped me be free, and free my own mind,” stated Prince Akeem, a student of the EAR Masters program.
“A lot of times, our students are getting into situations because they don’t have places, outlets. Creative expression is a healthy tool to allow them to get some of that angst out,” says Spirit, an EAR instructor and music producer. Using art and music helps these students build up trusting relationships—not just with their teachers, but with themselves.
Miky, an EAR artist who’s now 21, was happy to perform “Shine” at Art Start’s recording studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The program transformed his life and gave him hope for the future. “I was thinking, I gotta help out my gang, let me help out my crew. In school I didn’t pay attention to teachers.” When he was 16, Miky was involved in gang-related fights and was charged with drug possession. “After Art Start, the only thing I am actually proud of is, that my mind is actually open,” he adds. “I haven’t really accomplished things that I want to, but I know there is going to be a point that I will.”
“Art Start’s real mission is to build upon the innate talents and the innate gifts that our youth have” says Johanna. “Some people complete big works of art and others just begin to experience creatively and then with that, they find the confidence to go out and try something totally not related to the arts.” This newly found confidence gives them the hope that they can overcome the obstacles and circumstances these marginalized youth already face.
Want to Get Involved?
To support Art Start or watch their upcoming performances please visit: www.Art-Start.org
Host/Producer: Jeannette Josue
Videography: Daryl Ryan
Artists: Spirit, youngmichael, Prince Akeem, Miky
Music: “Shine” “Change the World” by artists from Art Start
Featured photo (top): Local and out of state Art Start students collaborate in a music production class in an “Across Borders Concept” session. Photo by Jeannette Josue.