University City: ArtWell Programs Inspire Youth

Students involved in MasterPeace stand outside their finished mural.

ArtWell, formerly known as the Arts and Spirituality Center, teaches students to use art and communication to help combat the personal struggles of everyday life.

The nonprofit organization, located at 3723 Chestnut St., works with the youth of Philadelphia to expand their horizons and open their eyes to the endless possibilities in store for them.

This is beneficial in a city where 26.7 percent of residents identify as poor and one out of five students will not graduate high school.

Children are encouraged to express themselves through art.
Children are encouraged to communicate with each other through art.

The Rev. Susan Teegen-Case, executive director and ordained United Church of Christ minister, founded ArtWell in November 2000 along with a group of activists, artists and educators. Twelve years later, she said she could not imagine working for a more incredible community.

“We are living in complex times. We need our greatest imagination, creativity hope and what is greatest within us and outside of us to work together to deal with complex issues,” said Teegen-Case.

Since ArtWell was founded, its dedicated staff members have helped improve the lives of more than 25,000 individuals with the several programs offered. These include HeartSpeak, We the Poets, the Art of Growing Up and MasterPeace. Each follows a unique curriculum and targets age groups ranging from those in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Cathy Cohen, education director and creator of We the Poets, guides students in writing poetry to communicate and voice their emotions. She said she has seen many teens transform themselves through her curriculum.

Cohen said she remembers a particular instance several years back where a student blamed himself for a traumatic accident he witnessed happen to one of his family members as a young child. She said it took months for him to discuss his feelings but he finally opened up through a touching poem he wrote and read to his class.

“He shared his poem with the class that day, with everyone in tears, and went on to share it with his family. Writing and sharing that poem helped put him on a path towards processing his experience,” said Cohen.

HeartSpeak differs slightly by using both art and music to cope with the ongoing violence seen in Philadelphia and to encourage participants to search for peaceful solutions to these issues. Through interactive workshops with other participants, students learn how to become effective communicators.

Teen Tech, a component of the HeartSpeak program, uses film as a form of expression.
Teen Tech, a component of the HeartSpeak program, uses photography as a form of expression.

Members involved with MasterPeace work to create large pieces of art which reflect the strengths of individual communities, often in the form of colorful murals. This encourages them to keep their neighborhood thriving.

Julia Katz Terry, program director, said she took her position at ArtWell after traveling to West Africa, where she completed a field study on a coming of age tradition for girls. She said she was inspired by the way the community came together to support and celebrate young women during a challenging transition in their lives.

“Upon returning to the U.S., I recognized a void in the way that we guide and support the adolescents in our country and that is when I established my current curriculum,” said Terry.

Terry said she created the the Art of Growing up for her senior thesis and is proud of the way the program has progressed at ArtWell. Those ages 10-14 can participate in her curriculum, which teaches the skills needed to overcome the obstacles of growing up.

Shira Burcat, program and development associate, came to ArtWell through her field placement in social work at the University of Pennsylvania. She said her work with the organization has taught her many ways communities can come together and solve problems.

“I think ArtWell demonstrates the great power that lies in all of our youth and communities, and that can be tapped into through creativity, communication and the arts,” said Burcat.

She is not alone in her conviction, as studies have shown the positive influence these kinds of programs have. A 2012 report from a National Endowment for the Arts showed at-risk students involved with art tend to have better academic results than those without access.

“The kids I see in the programs are completely brilliant and inspiring. They have been through and are going through really difficult changes in their neighborhoods and lives and manage to overcome that. Being able to witness this daily is what makes my job so rewarding,” said Teegen-Case.

The members of ArtWell have no plans to stop their success with Philadelphia adolescents anytime soon. They hope to continue hosting events and want to expand their programs to include more adults who can use art to alleviate stress.

Children from the Art of Growing Up program participate in mask-masking.
Children from the Art of Growing Up program participate in mask-masking.

As of now, ArtWell students’ work can be seen on display until May at an exhibit at City Hall called Awakened Dreams. On April 25, ArtWell will also be co-hosting an event with The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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