By Ken DeLaat
A decade ago a partnership between the Newaygo County Juvenile Court and the NCCA Artsplace created a new program. With funding from the Fremont Area Community Foundation the initiative paired youth who were involved in the juvenile justice system with creative, hands-on art activities guided by an artist with a bit of a personal investment in the initiative. It was called PITA or Positive Impact Through the Arts.
NCCA Artsplace Program Coordinator Lindsay Isenhart:
“PITA was a wonderful idea that jingled around in our heads for a while. Then finally the right grant opportunity came up that fit it. When I was a young teenager I grew up in kind of a rough family life and I could have gone two directions with my angst and insecurities and all that teenage stress and change that goes on. I could have gotten in a whole lot of trouble. I could have poured that into running around, drinking and hanging with friends that were less than desirable and instead, I met the Jansmas.”
Ray Jansma was a local artist whose works can be found throughout the area and beyondnand Phyliis, his wife, was a musician who taught many young people in the Fremont area. Years ago they held art sessions at the studio on their Ramshorn Drive property.
“I was asked to come over and model for a drawing group and I fell in love with all these people around me doing art. They weren’t judgy, they were just people making amazing art. Some of them were good, some were kind of meh but they were all getting together on Tuesdays and making art.
“I started going there on Tuesdays. First I was modeling, then I was making art, then I started spending time in the studio. I was surrounded by these generous people who gave of their time and talent and got me plugged into a positive outlet for my energy. I found people who were accepting in a safe and creative environment and art was my outlet.
“Anyway, I thought ‘you know what? It worked for me so let’s throw it out there to other kids’.
"We were talking about where to find the kids and kicked around getting referrals from the high schools or running an after school program and Marianne said ‘I know where to find the kids,’ "
Turns out Executive Director Marianne Boerigter had already spoken to Newaygo County Juvenile Services Director Laura Watkins and the program was put together working with young people who were involved with Juvenile Court.
I recently had the opportunity to visit one of the sessions where 7 of the art students were embarking on their latest project. One young lady spoke with a broad smile describing a ceramic piece she had created. I asked another student how he felt about attending the class.
“ I like it. I find it pretty fun. When I was first told I had to do this class I wasn’t really looking forward to it because I just wanted to go home but I find it interesting to be doing all sorts of different projects.”
Soon the group began in earnest and Lindsay explained the latest endeavor allowing for the inevitable questions. She touched base with each student, talking about the current project and occasionally hearing about something that might have happened in school or at home since their last meeting. Director Watkins sat outside of the room in the hallway having provided rides for some of the kids.
“This is the type of program where our kids can come away having had a positive experience,” she stated. “We’ve had no problems with them while they’re here. They really enjoy the art work and often they show their parents with pride what they’ve done. A couple have brought their work to court to show (Probate) Judge Dykman during their hearing and one even gave her the project they created.
“Lindsay does a great job. Once they begin they feel real comfortable here and it’s such a positive place for them. We have kids who have had a lot of personal trauma and we’ve seen so much isolation and depression, especially since COVID. She is good at making them feel comfortable and providing a safe and positive outlet to help rebuild self esteem.”
The creative collaboration that gave birth to PITA is a prime example of what can happen when a need is combined with an intervention which receives an assist from a funding source. The result is the type of initiative that not only provides a positive immediate outcome but also plants positive seeds that can come to fruition down the road.
Director Marianne Boerigter: “The program not only provides the kids with great art experiences...it is more than that. It is a chance to be themselves and express themselves in a constructive way. It is positive socialization with kids their own age as well as with the adult instructors and the court staff. It is a place for them to be engaged with others in a safe and inclusive way. The NCCA-Artsplace is pleased to be able to provide positive experiences as the kids work through changing their personal actions and decisions for the better.
“A lot of the kids had been through the system before,” added Isenhart.” Some of them have been through the system again and again but I didn’t care how they got there or what their circumstances were. I cared that when they came to class with me it was a safe space and that they’re going to learn something cool in a positive way to express themselves. Whether it was their jam or not, whether they liked what we learned that day didn’t matter. They gave it a try. Some of these kids have connected to community theater, some have connected to graphic design jobs, some have gone on in other successful roles and some broke my heart but they had a positive experience. They’ve come back and said ‘I remember being in the group and I remember what we made and how amazing it was,’”
From the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
For at-risk and justice-involved youths, the arts can provide an outlet for addressing emotional and/or problem behaviors through opportunities to learn new skills, develop new talents, and express thoughts and ideas in creative and therapeutic ways. Similarly, for youths dealing with trauma or victimization (including exposure to violence), the arts can help them to cope with painful experiences by fostering resiliency . Creating art can strengthen a youth’s problem-solving skills, autonomy, sense of purpose, and social competence. Moreover, art can help encourage positive emotions and strength, allowing youths to view themselves as survivors and not as victims.
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