ArtsPlace is a program of the Rockford Area Arts Council. It is an arts apprenticeship program for youth to create works of art under the direction and guidance of professional artists and learn job skills in the process. The mission of ArtsPlace is to mentor youth development through the arts. Over the sixteen years of running ArtsPlace, we have seen the positive impact this program has on young people. This is one of those stories.
Last week I heard a message on my work voice mail, “Mom? It is your son. I am doing very well and hope you are too.” At ArtsPlace we emphasized the importance of courtesy and advised letting a former employer know you have listed them as a reference.
There is more than one ArtsPlace kid who calls me “Mom”, but I recognized him immediately. His English is now perfect, but I could hear the accent. He was a refugee from Sierra Leon. By the time he came to us, he had changed his name because it was too hard for Americans. I asked him to teach me how to say it and that is the name I use. He says I am the only one now.
He and his mother escaped from Sierra Leon after revolutionary soldiers killed his father. They managed to make it to Ghana where they lived for several years in a refugee facility until they were accepted by the United States. He was very smart, but had inconsistent schooling, and no school records. Before coming to the US, he took a two week crash course in English and became his mother’s interpreter.
In Ghana he earned change in the streets performing a Michael Jackson impersonation. I know he was good because he did the routine for the ArtsPlace Dance audition. He was entirely self taught and eager to learn from professionals.
ArtsPlace became a safe haven for him. He was teased by classmates for being African and mocked for his accent. At ArtsPlace we encouraged him to share his story and culture, develop talents, and identify life goals. He wanted to become a doctor with the hope of returning to his home country. We helped him complete financial aid forms, college applications, and wrote letters of recommendation for scholarships and grants. When things seemed overwhelming, we listened and encouraged.
In the ten years I have known him, he has remained postitive and focused on his goal to complete college, despite setbacks. His mother died of cancer when he was in his second year at Rock Valley College. He was the target of a drive by shooting that grazed the side of his head. If he had not turned away as quickly as he did, the bullet would have gone through his temple. He knew the drivers and gave their names to the police. They suggested he relocate. Relatives in Pennsylvania offered him a place to stay and he has re-established himself.
Today he is working his way through school to become a nurse. The United States has become “home”. All the family he has now, is here. The reference call was for a job to work with children who are disabled.
A couple summers ago he came for a visit and I asked if he was still dancing. He laughed and tapped his heart. “I will always be a dancer.” He volunteers at a community center in Pittsburg and teaches job skills through Hip Hop. I asked if he wanted to do a workshop at ArtsPace and offered him a stipend, but he refused. “I don’t take money from family.”
He taught a new move he created. I saw just a glimpse of the moon walk.
Applications for ArtsPlace 2012 are available on line: www.artsforeveryone.com