Children's Voice July/August 2008

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Combining Art and Mentoring for Pre-Teen Girls

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The pop song was right--girls just want to have fun. But in Alexandria, Virginia, that's not the whole story. The dozen fifth-grade girls who participated in this year's Space of Her Own (SOHO) program want a particular type of fun: Thursday night art class, working with their mentors, and making decorations for their new rooms.

SOHO is an art-based mentoring program run by Alexandria's Court Services Unit and The Art League, a local nonprofit visual arts organization. The SOHO girls partner with a female mentor for a year; art classes begin in the fall and continue through late spring, when the mentors remodel each girl's room with the decorations they've made in class. There's a reception in early summer to share the results with the group, but each pair completes community service projects throughout the summer before the girls graduate from the program.

Linda Odell is the Director of Alternative Programs for Alexandria's Court Services Unit and cofounded the program six years ago with Alice Merrill, Director of Development at The Art League. Odell and her coworkers were trying to create a preventative program for at-risk girls. "We knew we needed to start a program for girls," Odell says. "Their issues tend to be truancy and runaway behavior, so getting them to show up for the program was a challenge."

"We knew that mentoring is a best practice, so we just started brainstorming with friends," she adds. With research that suggests mentoring needs to last at least a year to build the kind of relationship that will make a big difference in a child's life, Odell needed a program with a hook that wouldn't let go. Inspired by the popular television show Trading Spaces, Odell thought the promise of a room renovation might interest the girls enough to keep them coming back week after week. Casual conversations at a party gave Odell the chance to test her hypothesis: She shared her idea with several people and got a wave of positive feedback. "By the end of the night there was a circle of women around me saying 'I want to volunteer.'...I didn't realize it would also be a great way to lure the adults," Odell says.

But interest the adults it did. In addition to her regular job, Lesley Harris is a part-time artist. She volunteered as a mentor for the 2006-2007 SOHO group and has been doing double duty in the current session, serving as both a mentor and one of the art instructors. Throughout their classes, the girls and mentors decorated storage crates, picture frames, wall hangings, lamps, and chairs. They also learned painting and photography skills. Most of the things they create end up in the girls' rooms, which often also get a fresh coat of paint and new furniture. The remodeling comes from little things that are easily transferable if the family moves. "We know that it may not be a permanent place, so we try to make it stuff they could keep and take with them," Harris says.

"Last year I had a nice feeling when I was done," she says. "I didn't know that you could do so much with so little. I felt like it didn't just have an effect on Ki'Nesha and her room, but maybe the whole family." Though she is mentoring Nyree this year, Harris is still in touch with Ki'Nesha and her family. That's what Odell likes to hear. "We find about half the relationships work longer than a year," she says.

Odell has learned a little more each year of SOHO, tweaking aspects of the program for better results. When SOHO started, the girls invited to participate were already involved in the Alexandria court system and middle school-aged. "I sort of learned the hard way that once the girls are already in trouble it's very hard to get them involved with the mentors," Odell says. The girls she invites now are still considered at-risk; they have problems at school or a court-involved family member. But they're younger--this year's SOHO class was all fifth-graders. "We think we finally found the right age group," Odell said.

This was the first year all the girls who started coming to SOHO classes continued through the end. Three girls even had perfect attendance and were given digital cameras, as Odell had promised them at the beginning of the year. The Art League added another surprise: iPod Shuffles for those three, and new sketchbooks for all the girls to keep them working on art. They received the gifts at a reception with their families and alumnae of the program. Each girl had brought in several of her completed projects to show off.

Having a major event near the end of each year's program, Odell says, not only brings a sense of accomplishment to the participants, but also serves as a springboard for the next session, helping to recruit mentors. There is currently a waiting list for interested mentors, but Odell is always trying to add more names.

Those who cannot mentor but would like to support the program are encouraged to donate. SOHO currently receives funding from the Alexandria Youth Fund and the Otto Whaley Family Foundation, as well as area businesses, organizations, and individuals. "It's a pretty big undertaking," Odell admits, but she'd like to see similar programs in other areas. "I'd love to help guide them."

After SOHO was featured last year in Vanessa A. Camilleri's book Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts Therapies with At-Risk Youth, Odell got calls from people who wanted to know more--from as close as Richmond, Virginia, which is starting its own version of the program, and as far as Australia. Odell advises checking some of the ideas on the National Mentoring Partnership website and visiting SOHO to see the program in action.

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