Friday, January 02, 2009

Connecting artists, musicians and writers with at-risk youth

Mentoring organization brings art to at-risk youths
Create Now's Take HeART program runs workshops that connect artists, writers and musicians with youths on probation or in foster care
Holland, Gale. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 30, 2008.

After almost 20 years in the film business, Jill Gurr started a script-writing workshop for youths in detention on a variety of criminal convictions. To her astonishment, several illiterate young men in the class learned to read and write.

When they saw their own words incorporated into a script, they were eager to read it, she said during a break in an art workshop for foster girls at a recent Christmas crafts fair in downtown Los Angeles.

The script-writing project became the seed of Create Now, a Los Angeles mentoring organization Gurr started 12 years ago that connects artists, musicians and writers with high-risk youths.

"L.A. runs on the arts; it's the main economy in the city," said Gurr, the organization's founder and executive director. "We have all the creative people. They may not have money, but they have time." She said art gives disadvantaged youths a voice, makes them feel better about themselves and opens their eyes to good professions.

Create Now is among a number of Southern California nonprofit organizations supported by The Times Holiday Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. Create Now's Take HeART program, which runs workshops by professional artists for at-risk, low-income youths, received $10,000 from the fund this year.

"Gina," a teenager who lives in a group foster home in Pasadena, was decorating address books at the Create Now workshop and thinking about her mother. Art was the last thing they did together before her mother's death, she said.

"I love art; it reminds me of my childhood," Gina said. (The name is a pseudonym because foster care regulations prohibit identifying youths in the system.) "You can tell how people are feeling by the way they paint," said the teen, whose favorite motif is red-and-black hearts and skulls.

Josef Sanchez, a one-time L.A. County Probation Commission appointee on hand at the Create Now booth, said the group is among few organizations that reach youths on probation or in foster care, many of whom have been abused or neglected.

Sanchez, who has spoken at thousands of schools, said "kids are so engaged when they are talking about the arts. Their compassion, their joy is restored."

Gurr said artists involved in the program include drummer Mark Schulman, who has toured with the singer Pink and led a motivational rap seminar at a juvenile detention center in Sylmar. One of the students at the seminar wrote that he was inspired to change his life. That student now works at Universal Studios and attends college, she said.

After a 14-year-old African American girl was killed in the Harbor Gateway area two years ago,partly because of her race, Create Now collaborated on a peace mural with 18 fourth-graders from the neighborhood. At a festival to unveil the project, which featured images of Cesar Chavez and Gandhi, an activist group of Latino mothers invited an African American mother to show African art at their table, Gurr said.

The group also has sponsored hundreds of children to attend performances, including the Ashes and Snow photo exhibition in Santa Monica, Cirque de Soleil and Circus Vargas.

"Many have never been to a cultural event," the executive director said. "One of the youths said, 'What's an intermission?'"

Gurr said she solicits artists through Craigslist or online volunteer sites. "They're thrilled to come for a couple hours," she said. "For writers, it's great to know how to speak the slang they use on the streets."

Fasra Farahani responded to an online call to help out at the crafts booth. A concept artist and art director who recently worked on film director Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice in Wonderland," Farahani said he doesn't have much time for volunteering but feels compelled to do something.

"I feel like I have an amazing family, an unbelievable great family, good friends, and I make a comfortable living doing substantial work," said Farahani, 30. "I want to give back."

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