Program helps youth think outside box

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 14, 2004

When executive director of Families First Mary Jane Gaudet walked into the room at the end of the hall in the Adolescent Offender Program, she saw exactly what she didn’t want &045; a large, dark empty box.

As administrator of a Core Arts Grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission, Gaudet has been a firm believer in creativity and the positive effects it can have on students.

That is why Gaudet decided to take the box-like classroom in the AOP program at Central Alternative School and, in her own words, &uot;think out of the box.&uot;

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With the money from the arts in detention grant, Gaudet set out to transform the classroom into a positive environment for the students of the AOP program. The main focus of this transformation would be a large mural painted by the students along the classroom’s east wall.

&uot;I truly think environment affects you,&uot; Gaudet said. &uot;This mural will encourage (the students) to see themselves in a new light in which they can then have a positive effect on their environment.&uot;

Funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the AOP programs seeks to identify youths at a high risk to committing serious crimes and provide intervention for them and their families through various services.

In the final year of the three-year arts grant, Gaudet enlisted the expertise of local artists Leon Hollins and Loraine Griffin to instruct the students and to give them inspiration.

Immediately Hollins and Griffin got the students involved by talking about the issues and ideas that the students wanted to discuss.

Each class then created a list on the chalkboard.

&uot;We then threw out the ridiculous ones and had them vote,&uot; Hollins said.

Out of the vote came four strong ideas. Those ideas ranged from music and literature to mythology and popular culture.

After sketching on each idea with pencil and paper, the students came up with four panels &045; one filled with images from popular music, one filled with the mythological image of the &uot;mother of all,&uot; one filled with portraits of literary giants Richard Wright and William Faulkner and one filled an portrait of Samuel L.


&uot;Then we hacked at one panel at a time,&uot; Hollins said.

Months later the mural is completely awash in bright, vibrant colors.

&uot;I was so blown away by the design,&uot; Gaudet said recalling her look at the mural Monday.

&uot;It is gorgeous,&uot; Griffin said.

But will the mural provide a positive environment for students who frequently find themselves caught in a cycle of hopelessness, uncaring and helplessness?

Taking a break from teaching students Monday afternoon, Hollins and Griffin recalled their surprise last week when two of the AOP students sat down with a blank piece of paper and began sketching their own drawing taking inspiration from various elements of the newly painted mural.

&uot;It is an environment that makes them feel excited to be there,&uot; Hollins said.

&uot;It gives them the opportunity to dream,&uot; Gaudet said.