Art for Kids Sake

December 23, 2010

ArtForKidsSakeIn a period when many nonprofits have endured painful budget cutbacks, the Pasco Prodigy Cultural Arts Program, hosted at Saint Leo’s University Campus since 2006, stands out.

The local program brings arts as a medium of expression to children ages 7 to 17 who are in need of positive attention and may lack regular access to the arts, or to children and youths who have come under the supervision of the juvenile justice system for minor offenses. Remarkably in these stressed economic times, the project was awarded a budget increase of $60,000 for its current fiscal year. Cindy Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of social work, serves as the Saint Leo contract manager for Pasco Prodigy and oversees the budget. She attributes this year’s funding increase to consistent positive outcomes in Pasco County each year.

The broader Prodigy Cultural Arts Program operates in several central Florida counties, with funds originally from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and granted through an area agency, the University Area Community Development Corp. The overall program has endured partly because reliable research has demonstrated that almost none of the youths who come into the program because of an arrest get into trouble while participating, and 90 percent manage to keep out of trouble after their time in the program is over.

In Pasco County, this happens through the efforts of Darla Nunnery Walker, the site manager, and Jacqueline Bayliss, the student liaison. The two women report to Lee, and work to make sure Pasco Prodigy delivers caring, vibrant art classes to as many as 650 children each year. They are also artists in their own right, and have taught Prodigy classes. Both have seen children grow in confidence and self-esteem as the children are encouraged to paint or draw or work in other visual arts, such as mixed media or electronic arts, and as they have been exposed to musical, theatrical, and spoken-word performances. Along with confidence, the children develop an awareness of their own creativity and better ways to manage and express feelings such as anger or insecurity.

One 8-year-old girl Walker instructed, for instance, started out “withdrawn and sullen, saying, ‘I can’t do it right, it’s ugly,’ ” when she was first given paints. Slowly, she started to open up and smile and relax—signs that she was, in fact, taking in the nurturing the classes provide.

It’s important to find and recruit artists with the requisite skills for such a part-time job, Walker notes. “You need to like kids, and genuinely take interest in the welfare of these children, and translate that into your own creative passion for the arts,” she explains.

Classes are held after school or on the weekends, at five locations in Pasco County. Walker has retained inspired instructors and adeptly monitors the budget, now at $282,000, demonstrating responsible stewardship of resources, Lee says. “That shows great management.”

This story originally appeared in the fall newsletter of the School of Education and Social Services. To see the entire issue, visit this link: