Arts for youth: University of Utah students giving back through charity

Watch a video of students working on community-based art projects.

Story and multimedia by MICHAEL OMAN

Experience. That’s what it’s about.

Sure, the charitable cause, the opportunity to build up an irresistible resume, and even the chance to provide children with new skills are all fundamental components. But, above all, after-school art programs, like community-based art education, are about providing kids with a new experience; an experience that many otherwise would never have.

In South Salt Lake there’s one organization that provides youth with the opportunity to experience art education in a new way through the community-based art education model. A group of volunteer students created and currently run Arts for Youth through the University of Utah’s Bennion Center. The organization works with the Granite school district.

“These are title 1 schools that we’re in so they’re underfunded, so they don’t necessarily have much opportunity for art education there,” Kendall Fischer, the program’s director explained. This is why, she says, after-school art programs are so important. It provides a valuable outlet for the youth. “[Art is] really good for learning about yourself and expressing yourself,” said Fischer.

The program’s Co-Director Carly Chapple added that the program is also about encouraging kids to explore their creative side. Many students Arts for Youth works with are refugees or were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, she said. As a result, Chapple explained, many of those children have no experience with the arts.

The refugees come from all over the world ranging from the countries as far as the Middle East, like Afghanistan, to countries as close as Mexico. “I feel like if they didn’t have this then they wouldn’t have anything,” Chapple explained.

Of course, every program has its beginning. Arts for Youth is the exception. It has two.

Students apply to direct student-lead organizations through the University of Utah’s Bennion Center, Fischer said. Using that process, she intended to simply takeover Arts for Youth. The problem was that the outgoing director forgot to compile a transition packet, which directors are required to do near the end of their service.

It basically consists of vital information each succeeding director needs to know, such as community partner contact information, logistical information and anything else the incoming director needs to know, Fischer said.

“That’s how I ended up re-creating the program,” she explained.

From there the re-building process began. She collaborated with a professor in the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts developing ideas on how the organization would function and what it’s purpose would be.

Once she understood the fundamental goals of the organization Fischer was directed to Troy Bennett, manager of South Salt Lake Recreation. “From there we identified schools that would be good to work with,” she said. “We actually just started out with one school, Lincoln Elementary.”

Fischer ran the program herself the first year but she felt the need to prevent placing future directors in her position. Because of that she designed a system she felt would solve that problem. “Right now I have a co-director,” she said.

Chapple previously volunteered with Arts for Youth. Once she heard Fischer was seeking a co-director, she applied for the position — and ended up getting it, too.

Not only does Chapple serve as co-director but also as the program’s heir. “After I graduate this year then she will keep running it next year,” Fischer said. “And she’ll take on another co-director.”

“While it was a really cool learning experience for me to go through setting up the program, it definitely did waste time when art lessons could’ve actually been happening.”

After the program’s re-launch, Fischer was surprised by the response from the community. The program started out serving one elementary school but that number would quickly rise.

Last year, she said their biggest problem was actually having too many volunteers. “It was getting kind of bad so we were like, ‘Well, let’s expand.’ If we have so much volunteer enthusiasm that’s such a good thing, we should use that,” Fischer said.

Soon Woodrow Wilson was added to the list. During a community partner meeting this fall, a representative from Granite Park middle school made an appearance wanting Arts for Youth’s help Fischer said. “So, now we have three schools.”

As of now, the number of schools served is holding at three. They spend one day a week in each school teaching the students about the arts. What’s unique about this program is that it has a hint of community-based art education engrained in it. As a result, occasionally the larger community gathers to see the work each student created.

In addition, each lesson plan goes beyond teaching children how to draw or paint. Fischer said each lesson plan takes about 30 minutes to prepare and is designed to “promote respect for the self, for others, for the earth,” — things they ask volunteers to always keep in mind.

“If the lesson plan is interactive and it’s something the kids are learning then it goes over very well. … If it’s not interactive then it’s definitely not as effective,” Chapple said.

“I think the biggest challenge when working with children is getting their attention and keeping it,” she added. The trick, Chapple said, is finding the best method to truly engage each student. If you can do that, she said, students actually begin to develop a sense of excitement towards the lesson and, from Fischer’s experience, each succeeding lesson too. “They’ll say, ‘oh, what are we doing today?’” Fischer said.

Designing lesson plans isn’t always easy. Chapple added that the key is understanding what the kids want to learn about. She once tried to teach the children about Irish and Scottish culture. “That didn’t go over very well,” Chapple said. “They said, ‘Uh, this is kind of a little boring.’” To salvage the lesson she shifted to focus on two-point perspective drawing — or learning how to draw a cube using only two dimensions. “They were very interested in that,” she said.

Both Fischer and Chapple are inspired to volunteer because of their appreciation of the arts and their love of children. They are hopeful that Arts for Youth will stick around long after they’ve graduated.

The good news is that even though the University of Utah faces a 7 percent cut to their budget both don’t foresee that as a huge concern. The state does fund the Bennion Center — and the center funds Arts for Youth — but most of its funds come from donations. Arts for Youth is generally allotted $300 from those donations, Chapple said. In addition, she noted that the program is eligible to receive funding from the ASUU — another $300 or $400.

“The other cool thing that we did to receive money is we held a fundraiser this year,” Chapple said. Using the artwork the kids created, Arts for Youth hosted a silent auction. “[We] ended up raising about $475,” she said.

With the wide range of support the program receives, budget cuts aren’t a huge concern at the moment.

If Arts for Youth ever feels the effects of a budget cut, it undoubtedly will be much further down the road. With that in mind, Chapple and Fischer very will could see their program attract a very large line of succession. Of course, adding a couple new schools wouldn’t be bad either.