'Mom comes too early! I was having fun!" Pouting, 8-year-old Renee lightly stamps her foot like a corn-rowed Scarlet O'Hara, then skips out of the classroom, backpack in tow. The rest of the kids in her art class pause momentarily to bid her farewell, and then get back to the business of creation.
The kids are in the pre-K to 3rd grade group at the New Community After School and Advocacy Program. The project is a mission of New Community Church, an ecumenical neighborhood-based church in the Shaw community of Washington, D.C. Established in 1984 in an abandoned building that burned in the 1968 riots, the church is a symbol of a neighborhood in physical and spiritual rebirth. The children's program began four years later.
Donna Mauney-Taylor, whose presence looms large at the school, has been executive director for a little more than a year. "We have kids who have to deal with a lot of anger," she said. "In this neighborhood they are exposed to violence and drug and alcohol abuse. Our mission is to work with these children and reach them spiritually as well as educationally." Je Nae Clark, a new volunteer from nearby Howard University, said her goal was "to connect with children, find out their needs, and to meet them to the best of my ability."
Rachel Dickerson, a longtime member of New Community Church, runs Artspace, a part of the program since 1999 that touches all participants. Dickerson said that those who lead the program believe that "children will grow up to be responsible, productive adults who in turn will give their time and talents back to the community." Dickerson feels that Artspace contributes to the mission of the school because the "art enrichment activities are planned solely for each child to come in contact with their creative selves. We learn there is nothing we cannot do. The possibilities are endless and we are all artists."
The art materials used range from cotton balls to clay, the activities from still life drawings to printing with erasers. While the visual arts are the primary focus of Artspace, they have also opened some participants to other forms of artistic expression such as poetry, music, and drama. "While I am not a music or drama teacher," Dickerson said, "I can advocate and find places for their gifts to be nurtured."
The program has become a favorite not only for children but also for many of the adults in the neighborhood. Adults come two evenings a week, with Thursday being senior night. The seniors love working on simple projects like making picture frames, tissue-paper flowers, and pottery, but as their confidence grows so does their ambition. This fall the adult class has started a crochet and knitting circle, and some of them are also starting to paint. Women in the senior group call the class their "therapy time," and Dickerson agrees. "Art has power to heal spiritual, emotional, and physical brokenness," she said. "It can heal nations."
Artspace appears to be nurturing for Dickerson as well. "Even as a small child, I felt the strong hands of the Spirit at work in this community," she said. "I am blessed to be working in this place that has blessed me with so much."
Artspace not only provides a loving, therapeutic embrace for people in the neighborhood, but it also offers an opportunity for budding artists. This past summer, students from the program had their work displayed at Potter's House in Washington, D.C.'s Adams-Morgan district.
Larry Bellinger is an assistant editor of Sojourners. For information on New Community After School and Advocacy Program and Artspace, contact New Community Church, 614 S St. NW, Washington, DC 20001; (202) 232-0457.