volunteer

Paper Butterflies and the Art of Changing the World

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I volunteer to teach art to a group of inner city kids in downtown, Phoenix. In the summer, classes are longer and I am there for over three hours during the afternoon. Strange as it may sound, I like to go there unprepared. No lesson plan, no preconceived projects designed to hold their attention and occupy their time. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I have noticed that when I walk into that room with no expectations and open heart, a lesson will unfold.

Sitting at tables drawing together, I spontaneously picked up a piece of paper and folded it into an origami butterfly. The girl sitting next to me asked if I would show her how to make one. Yes, I told her.. of course I will.

We moved onto the floor at the other end of the room, followed by two more girls. Step by step, the four of us slowly folded pieces of paper into butterflies. While we worked, I kept talking – stopping whenever someone got lost, backing up a few steps, gently encouraging them and taking the time to make sure everyone was following along.

“The first time is the hardest,” I explained. “With each butterfly you make, it will get a little easier.”

Sure enough, after about three or four butterflies, they were really getting the hang of it.

A group of other kids wandered over to where we were sitting and asked if I would teach them how to make butterflies, too. “Yes, of course,” I replied..  then I turned to my three butterfly-makers and said, “These are your teachers.”

The girls looked at me, surprised. “You can do this,” I told them. Then I grabbed a piece of paper and waited for the lesson to begin.

Throughout the day, more and more children came into the room – “Is this the origami class?” they would ask. Yes, I replied – welcoming them into the group. Every time a new student sat down, a new teacher would be there to help them learn. Each teacher that emerged, taught their students with the same gentleness, patience and encouragement that I first showed to the three little girls. I heard them softly repeat my words to each other, explaining how the first time is the hardest.. how with each butterfly, it will get a little easier.

Although I only taught three girls, about 40 kids learned how to make butterflies that day.

How can I even begin to explain how it felt to watch the chain-reaction that unfolded before me? Children as students, learning and becoming teachers; sharing their knowledge and empowering new teachers. Over and over, the cycle continued..  like the ripples of so many stones tossed into an endless river.

When I walked into that room I was a teacher. But when I became a student, a lesson unfolded with the delicate whisper of paper butterfly wings.. and the power to change the world.

 

 

Empty Books and the Art of Speaking Without Words

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“The Way I Talk” by Michele Bledsoe

Local poet and writer, Manuel Paul Arenas and Half-Price Books generously donated an assorted collection of blank journals to give to the children at the center where I volunteer.

I handed out many journals this summer, and this is the story of one of them.

During class, I looked up and saw a little girl hovering in the doorway. She was hesitant, extremely shy and awkward. With encouraging words, I somehow managed to coax her into the room.

She stared at me intently, but said nothing.

I asked her if she kept a diary.. if she knew what a journal was for.

She remained silent, but her stare intensified.

I could tell she was listening to every word I said.

So, I went on – explaining how a journal was a book where you can write down your dreams. You could fill it with stories, pictures and poetry. A place where you could say anything and express yourself completely without saying a word.

Then I handed one of those beautiful, little books to this silent child and told her, “This is your journal.”

Her eyes opened wide as she stared at the book in her hands, and sat down in the nearest chair. I watched as she examined her new journal.. turning it over and over in her hands. Then she grabbed a pencil, put her head down and began to write and write and write.

Throughout the day, groups of kids came and left. But despite the chaos in the room, that little girl remained sitting at a table by herself, head down and furiously writing.

Eventually, she came up for air.. and spoke briefly. Just a random comment, but I suddenly understood the reason for her silence. My heart went out to her – this beautiful child had a pronounced speech impediment.

As artists, we understand how life changing it is to be able to express yourself creatively. These children come from difficult circumstances.. and the simple gift of an empty book may be all it takes to change a life.

Thank you, Manny. And thank you, Half-Price Books for your wonderful gift.

So much more than just an assortment of blank books – your generous and loving donation gave a silent child a very powerful voice.

 

 

 

 

Learning to Glow and the Art of Kindness by Proxy

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One night at our art class, I handed out glow bracelets to all the young artists who came to draw with us.

A young girl wanted to light up ALL the bracelets at once

but I said “No”

I wanted to save them for the other kids, I explained.

“Oops!” she said, looking at me

and accidentally (on purpose) cracked one of the bracelets – causing it to glow.

She was testing my boundaries (as kids will do)..

and I smiled.

“Well, now you have to do a job for me,” I told her..

“Take that bracelet, go outside

and when you see someone walking alone – give it to them.”

The little girl jumped up and ran outside to complete her mission.

Inside, one of the kids looked at me and said,

“That’s a really nice thing you did.”

I said, “That’s a really nice thing Perla is going to do.”

 

Volunteering and the Art of Time Travel

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Evidence of time travel captured in the background…

Recently, a friend told me of an exercise he read about several years ago. It had to do with empowering oneself within the memories of childhood. Basically, if you had a bad experience when you were a child, you could somehow change the outcome of it. It is an act of imagination – the Now You returns to help the Little You.

An interesting idea.

Naturally, I found myself roaming through the memories of my own childhood

Now Me, looking for Little Me..

And then I stopped.

In a way, I am already doing this.

At the center where we volunteer..

I see myself in some of the kids in our art class.

The quiet ones.

The introverts.

The lonely and the ignored.

I seek them out

and I think that the words I would have spoken to Little Michele

are the same words that I share with them.

Time travel is possible, but it is not an act of the imagination..

it is an act of love.

 

Catfish Kittens, Snakes and Exploding Hearts

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Last week at our art class there was a quiet little boy sitting by himself at a table.

He looked hurt somehow.. there was such a sad look on his face.

When it was getting close to the end, I coaxed him over and asked him to show me what he was drawing. Wow, what a talented artist he is! He made a beautiful picture of an octopus, a flower and a golden pyramid.

I showed him my drawing of a weird fish wearing a crown swimming next to a “catfish”… with the head and paws of a cat and the tail of a fish.

The little boy’s eyes got big.. his mouth twitched a little – but he didn’t say a word.

So, I asked him “Do you think catfish have kittens?”.. and the biggest smile on earth practically split his face in two. It lit up the room like the sun.

I gave that drawing to him.

When class was over, he stayed late to help us put away all the pencils and paper. I thanked him for helping us clean up.

Yesterday, the boy returned to draw with us again. When class was over, he handed me his drawing of a beautiful, polka-dotted snake and whispered, “This is for you.”

Sometimes I think my heart is going to explode.

Embracing Chaos and the Art of Open Doors

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My husband and I teach art to a group of inner city kids… but that’s not really what we do.

We do not have a traditional class where we see the same students every week.. sitting in designated places, teaching them a new lesson each week designed to progressively improve their drawing skills.

There are so many children.

Our class is growing constantly because we keep the door wide open.

I suppose I could simply shut the door and keep the size of the class to something more manageable..

But I would rather embrace the chaos than exclude a single child from the experience of making art.

So we squeeze together at the tables with our elbows bumping

passing out paper to anyone who joins us

sharing pencils, markers and crayons

drawing and talking together..

We may not be following a specific lesson plan

but these children are learning that when they want to express themselves

the door to art is always open.

The Art of the Extended Family

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My husband and I are returning to Copper Trails School to take part in their gifted arts night. I am looking forward to spending the evening drawing pictures with these talented young artists.

Having no children of my own, I must admit I was a little anxious the first time I found myself in a room surrounded by kids.

But the moment we sat down to draw together, all of that disappeared.

A wondrous thing happens when people create art together..

We discover that we are all family.

The Art of Being Unstoppable

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I volunteer to teach art to a group of inner city kids in downtown Phoenix. As we sit at a table drawing pictures together, the kids often bombard me with questions: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you live in a house? What’s your favorite color?

I answer every single question… simply and honestly.

One afternoon, I noticed a young girl leafing through the copy of The Secret Kingdom that I had brought to class with me.

“You made all these pictures?” She asked.

“Yes.” I replied.

She looked at me very seriously and asked, “Do you ever get frustrated when you’re drawing?”

I knelt down so I was face to face with her when I answered:

“Yes, I do… but I don’t let that stop me.”

Letter to a Young Artist

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Dear little boy,

You may not have noticed, but I have been watching you grow.

I remember the first time you came into our art class. You were shy and quiet. You walked to the back of the room and sat at a table by yourself. When I gave you a pencil and a piece of paper, you told me you couldn’t draw.

When you came back the following week, I was happy to see you. Again, when I gave you paper and a pencil, you told me you couldn’t draw. I sat down and asked you to tell me about something you liked to do – something you were good at. You told me you liked to play soccer.

“Were you a terrific soccer player the first time you tried?

“No.” you said.

“How did you get better?” I asked.

“I practiced.”

“It’s the same thing with drawing, ” I explained, “the more you draw, the better you’ll get.”

The following week you were back again. This time, you sat at a table next to my husband, Richard. I saw how intently you were watching him draw. You asked him to draw a truck. I watched as you tried to draw one by yourself.

The next time I saw you at class, you were sitting with the group, drawing everything in sight. The stuffed animals on the table, flowers and butterflies – even copying images from the mural on the wall. I could tell you had been practicing – a lot. I sat down next to you and told you how amazing your drawings were – really beautiful.

“Hey, I thought you said you couldn’t draw!” I teased.

You looked at me and smiled.

The following week we sat at a table and drew pictures together. I complimented your work – “Wow, that’s a great hand. Hands are hard to do – I still have trouble with them, sometimes.” You looked at my drawing and asked how I got to be so good. “Practice,” I said, “Years and years of practice.”

When class ended, you hugged me.

Dear little boy, you are an artist.

Soon our class will be over and you may never see me again..

but the gift you found within yourself will be with you always.

Still Life with Scorpion Hat

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My husband Richard and I volunteer each week to teach art to a group of inner city kids in downtown Phoenix. Sitting at a table, listening to music, talking and drawing with these beautiful children is a wonderful experience. We have been honing our skills doing still-life drawings. Not your typical bowls of fruit – instead, I have been bringing in a pile of strange objects and weird stuffed animals to draw. I encourage these young artists to choose what animal they’d like to draw – and then to use their imagination to create their own landscape – adding other characters, people and things to complete their masterpiece. Last night we got a little goofy after we finished our drawings, and ended up wearing most of the animals as hats. When I see the expression on that young artist wearing a stuffed scorpion on her head, it fills me with joy.