The door of the Orange Korner Arts House is hard to miss. Its coat of bright orange paint stands out among the otherwise ordinary exteriors of white and red lining the block. The door itself grabs the attention of the children of the community, but it’s what’s behind the door that keeps the children of Hunting Park coming back for more.
“I had one kid who was in and out a lot. He got used to being here, he liked being here, and he invited his friend over,” says Michaelanne Harriman, the center’s community arts director. “I was proud of him to bring him. Not only did he bring his friend into the house because he knew this kid would receive a lot of positive attention and interaction, as opposed to what he experiences on the block but the one student ended up sitting down [and saying] ‘This is where we do our homework, do you have any homework?’ It was very sweet.”
For Harriman, the O.K.A. House has brought the best out of the roughly 22 students who regularly attend the afterschool program.
“I have seen kids make leaps and bounds in character,” she says. “Every single one of them [has seen positive changes].”
The O.K.A. House brings about these changes through the use of various art programs. Children receive classes in dance, video editing, and music production, among other things, to optimize their potential and broaden their horizons.
“Basically, the mission statement of the community arts program is to increase the support system around both youth and adults in the neighborhood,” says Harriman. “To be able to creatively solve challenges that they encounter in life, using the arts as a problem solving skills development.”
The center has also helped the students with social interaction.
“It’s interesting, in the house the kids are really being knit together in ways that are really special because they have good peer involvement here. They know that in the house we don’t tolerate anybody cutting anybody down,” says Harriman.
That social interaction is evident in the way the children at the center act around one another.
“I like that when I’m here no one can make fun of me because we’re all doing the same things. We get to be ourselves here,” says 13-year-old Saiyeh Crosscombe.
And that group is constantly growing as current students invite their friends and word of mouth travels throughout the community.
“This is our second year and it’s really maxing out,” says Harriman
It’s a good sign for a program that once called the Ayuda Community Center’s basement home. The program was the brainchild of the Spirit and Truth Church.
“We shared space with everybody and it was very difficult, although we did great,” says Harriman.
And although Harriman believes growth is good, she not willing to sacrifice expansion at the expense of intimacy her teachers share with the students.
“Increasing capacity is not always my goal,” she says. “If we actually took everyone who’s walked in here at least once and walk with them through life and through college, then that’s plenty.”
It’s that emphasis on student intimacy that has catapulted Harriman from the big sister role to the role of mother.
“It used to be I was like the big sister but now it’s more like a mother, which I don’t really think is bad,” she says.
Having a mother figure is important for the children, especially the teenagers who attend the center.
“There’s ups and downs, they’re teenagers. There’s good and bad days. Every single child, it’s not that the program is so important in their life that they’re on a linear path towards greatness, I’ve just gotten to know them.”
Harriman’s motherly role also comes into play with the younger children at the center. She teaches them vital life skills.
“In this house we practice. We practice being kind to one another, we practice telling the truth,” she says. “We practice and the next time we know we can do a little bit better.”
Other volunteers, such as Janira Bremner, play the role of brother and sister to the children attending the program and reinforce the ideas instituted by Harriman.
“This space is providing an alternate environment for kids to experience themselves at home here in Hunting Park,” says Bremner, the center’s dance teacher. “The dance class really taps into the physical and allows the kids to access themselves in that kind of way.”
And while the center continues to provide children with social skills and art classes, Harriman hopes to bring a new aspect to the program in the future.
“At the end of the day I would really like to focus structurally toward beefing up [education] with our kids,” she says. “We not only want to want to walk with them character wise, but we really want to just do everything we can, everything that we’re capable of doing to walk with them educationally so they can achieve goals.”
Teacher benefits are also on Harriman’s to-do list.
“Right now all of my teachers are volunteers and that’s not how I want it. I want to be able to compensate standard employment for all of my teaching artists because it’s important to support the arts community in Philadelphia,” she says.
For Harriman, it all starts with fundraising.
“That’s my goal, to really beef up fundraising efforts so we can really compensate these artists for all the time they’ve volunteered here and also develop further programming focusing on the educational attainment for our kids,” she says.
While fundraising will take time, Harriman is more than happy with the way the program has progressed.
“I just love it. There’s always so much creativity brewing.”