FIVE YEARS AGO, my friend, Lisa Kendall, and I started an art and writing class at the Julie Community Center after we noticed that the kids in our neighborhood were not getting much in the way of creativity at school.
Prepared with good intentions and plenty of ideas, Lisa, a visual artist, and I approached Sister Barbara English at the Julie Center and asked her permission to work with the children. Sister Bobby, the director of the community center, and her assistant Gayle Faulkner, who supervises the after-school program, were generous enough to let us teach the class of a dozen kids, ages 5 through 12.
That first year, the kids were slow in trusting their own creative abilities. If they made a "mistake," they would rip up their papers and throw them in the trash. Sometimes there were tears or pouting. But Lisa's motto prevailed. "There are no mistakes," she said each week. Slowly, they began to trust their imaginations.
Our progress was not large in the ways success is usually measured. Instead, we counted success as a story written by a troubled boy about the tree house he dreamed of building outside his bedroom window. This boy came from a broken home, had hearing difficulties and many times sat in class with his arms crossed, refusing to work.
We also counted success as the day the girls became willing to get their hands dirty in the paper mache paste. We wrote stories, put on puppet shows, wrote poetry and rap songs. We painted and made collages, made masks and kept journals. Lisa and I were trying to give the class tools to express themselves through art. It didn't matter that words were misspelled because the kids were learning how to convey their experiences.
One year, we were fortunate enough to take our small class on a field trip to the Visionary Arts Museum. Most of the kids had never been to the other side of the city before and were amazed to look across the harbor and see the green steeple of St. Michael's Church, which marks their East Baltimore neighborhood. They were thrilled, having never seen their world from that perspective.
It didn't matter what we taught. The most important thing Lisa and I did was show up each week. Now we drop in whenever we can. Fortunately, we are not needed as much. The kids have learned how to dip into their imaginations to draw or write what they need to say.
A few weeks ago, I stopped in one afternoon to work with the kids. They were excited and enthusiastic. We decided to write letters to the editor about our neighborhood, the things we like, the ways it can be improved, our responsibility and opportunity to make a difference. The kids felt empowered by their sudden voice.
Here are their opinions of the neighborhood: They like to play in the park and go to church. They also think the people who run the cornergrocery stores are nice. Someone noted that it is helpful when dogowners scoop up dog poop from the sidewalks. One little girl named Jazmine suggested a drug-free park party. On her letter she drew two figures holding hands. "I like the park. I like the park," they echoed each other.
In response to a stinky nearby alley, a boy named Dominique wrote, "Why can't we have a clean-up party and everybody can bring a snack after we clean up the block?" Dominique's idea is right in time for the mayor. Cleaning up is not unfamiliar to these kids since every few months, equipped with trash bags, they pick up the garbage in local playgrounds.
Other children had deeper concerns about guns and drugs. An earnest 8-year-old boy wrote this: "I don't like the gunshots around our way. I don't like it. I do not like when people call me names."
Sadly, I was not shocked that he knew the sound of gunfire. My lack of surprise should be alarming. But I was struck more by his profound wish to be treated fairly, his desire to make things right. I hope this quality does not disappear as he gets older, when he becomes a teen-ager and has to make choices to stay out of trouble.
I say this because, a few nights ago, I was unloading groceries from my car while three teen-age boys hung out on the corner. It was unclear what they were up to. Maybe they were just strutting, trying to seem more imposing than they really were, or perhaps they were looking for trouble. I kept my eye on them as they sauntered toward me. When they got closer, I recognized one of the boys from the Julie Community Center, a boy I worked with five years ago.
"Hi, Mark," I said. All three boys stopped in surprise. They were startled right out of their purpose, whatever it was. "Hi, Miss Jen!" Mark answered, suddenly stricken with manners. The other boys straightened, too, and smiled. In that instant, they had become accountable. Mark is too old for the Julie Center now, though he is, unfortunately, the perfect age to get into a lot of mischief if he wanted. I would like to think that, for the time being, he stayed out of trouble because someone in the neighborhood had volunteered and gotten to know him, had spent time helping him with his reading, had given him a ride when he missed the bus.
The moral? Volunteering doesn't help in the ways you might expect. The kids at the Julie Center rarely learned what Lisa and I thought we were teaching. But in reaching out, we became a part of the community and all of us gained a sense of responsibility.
Jennifer Grow is a writer who lives in Butcher's Hill.