What: work on educational art projects with kids, through New York Cares
Where: El Faro Beacon School, East Harlem
When: Saturdays, 11:30am-3:30pm
When you first get to the Beacon School, you’ll sign in and head downstairs to the basement cafeteria. Besides that one detail, I’m pretty sure what awaits you will be different every time you volunteer with the Creative Arts Workshop Saturday Art Works program. The project we had for the day I was volunteering was to make a giant-sized puppet of an iconic African-American, in honor of Black History Month. The volunteers spent the first 45 minutes or so sorting through scraps of fabric, markers, crayons, and putting together the wood bases that would serve as a skeleton of sorts for the puppet. We then got a brief introduction to the program and some guidelines on working with children (don’t go anywhere alone with a child, ask for help from a program staffer if a child is being difficult, etc.). While this was going on, about 30 kids filed in and waiting for the program to begin.
Averaging about 8 years old, the kids gathered in a circle to hear about the project for the day. We then broke into groups to read about 10 different historical figures from Black History. After this, each group had to pick one person to turn into a giant puppet; our group chose Frederick Douglass and got to work making the best-dressed puppet in the place, thanks an imaginative 7 year old with fashion sense beyond his years. At around 2:30, everyone gathered again in a circle to present their characters and put on a brief play using the knowledge they learned from the books we read earlier in the day.
According to their website, “CAW is a nonprofit organization that utilizes the visual and performing arts to teach life skills to children and teens while enriching communities.” Though I volunteered through New York Cares, you can volunteer directly with CAW, who offer the workshops three Saturdays out of every month in East Harlem and Washington Heights. The workshops use the arts to promote creativity through a variety of mediums, including painting, drawing, montage, sculpture, dance, singing/rap, theater, music, reading, writing, gardening and any other practices that allow for creation and self-expression. They also have a number of other programs that serve the community and it’s children: Summer Art Works, After School Art Works, and the Giraffe Path, which is an annual arts project taking place this June. For more information about the Creative Arts Workshops for Kids, visit their website.
When the day started, I was slightly nervous about being able to mentor a child and display a certain level of intelligence. For some reason, I find the honesty of children extremely intimidating; the disapproval or ridicule of a 9 year old I’ve never met has almost the same affect on me as the disapproval of my own parents. I know its probably an unwarranted, ridiculous fear, but one I have none the less. And I’ve got to be honest: Black History is not a topic I’m an expert on. How do I teach kids about something I know nothing about? The books we read to them had some popular names of course, whose history I’m well aware of, but I wasn’t going to pretend that I knew where Frederick Douglass was born. If there was a quiz at the beginning of the day I would have undoubtedly failed with flying colors. But i digress…. As with every other time I volunteer with kids, it only takes about 5 minutes for me to realize that they are there to learn and have fun, and anything you do can only help them achieve that. They’re not nearly as judgmental as adults, which is a nice departure from reality if only for a few hours. One of the great things about mentoring kids is that you can both pick up a book and learn along side each other. Some other things to know:
- Eat a big breakfast. You’ll be here for a while, and although you’re given the option of taking a juice-box and small snack, 6 mini pretzel sticks won’t cut it as a lunch for me personally, since I’m no longer 3 feet tall and 30 lbs.
- The projects vary, but there’s a good chance markers, glue and/or paint will be involved. You’ll also be sitting on the floor and moving around a lot. Dress appropriately.
- The Creative Arts Workshops students and volunteers have painted some pretty cool murals around Harlem in the past few years. After the project, take a stroll down 124th Street and see if you can find some; if you don’t have time, check out the pictures I took above or head to the their online gallery.
- This project seems to attract a lot of artistic volunteers; including myself, the group of volunteers I worked with were all employed in graphic design. It’s not a surprising fact- the project is called Creative Arts Workshop. I’m just saying…this is a good activity for artsy-fartsy volunteers like myself.
- For those now wondering, Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland.