When a visitor travels into the City of Brotherly Love for the first time, there are two things they will always remember – the larger than life art that decorates the sides of our buildings and the struggle of this nation’s first capital to redefine itself amid industrial and social change. For one Germantown community organization, art is the cure for the growing pains of our weary city.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, more than 200 Philadelphians have lost their lives to homicide in 2014 so far, a 35 percent increase from 2007. Although residents are extremely concerned about these staggering statistics, few outside of the mental health profession are attempting to address the trauma that comes as a package deal with a crime and violence epidemic.
Enter BuildaBridge. Based in Germantown since 2003, this non-profit arts education and intervention organization uses art as a catalyst for hope, healing and transformation for youth and families experiencing crisis and poverty internationally. They offer year-round arts-based programming to youth groups and adults who may benefit from the therapeutic practice of self-expression or enjoy the benefit of hands-on and visual learning. For Philadelphians who have survived psyche-shattering experiences such as assault, intimate partner violence, homelessness or displacement, rape and abuse, these programs offer a chance to draw beauty out of their painful stories.
“My favorite part of working at BuildaBridge is seeing the impact on the youth,” said Jamaine Smith, director of community programs. “We embrace a restorative practices approach to working with students and it’s interesting to see how surprised they are that we talk to them when there is a conflict instead of disciplining, shaming or embarrassing them.”
Smith designs the curriculum for BuildaBridge programs, including the Artology Summer Program, which blends art and biology to expose students to environmental issues and encourage them to envision solutions with creative thinking and a sense of responsibility. An artist with a background in social work and urban studies, Smith understands the power of art to transform a blank canvas into a masterpiece, or a broken soul into a whole one.
“I enjoy working with paint but we have all types of creative outlets available for students,” said Smith.
Ebonye Holmes has a soft brown, smiling face and a shy, introverted temperament. Still, the look in her eyes tells that she has seen a lot in her lifetime. Holmes has been doing the work of BuildaBridge since its founding in 1997. A friend and colleague of the organization’s founders, Holmes has personally experienced the growth and change that these programs can bring.
“What really keeps me here is the mission. I have been through so much trauma in my life so I know how important it is to have an outlet. My son has been very involved also. He loved the Artology Summer Program. His grades improved because of the experience here,” said Holmes.
Holmes handles a lot of the behind the scenes work that helps BuildaBridge function and expand. When asked what her hopes are for the organization: “I see so much growth happening. If we can support a larger staff, we can touch a lot more lives,” said Holmes.
As of now, BuildaBridge operates with a full-time, paid staff of 2 and a multitude of talented individuals who volunteer and devote their time and skills to serving others.
“We definitely would not be what we are if it were not for our volunteer support. There is so much that we do, year-round, internationally. I think it requires each of us to wear many hats, but it is rewarding work,” said Programs Administrator Anna Bohl-Fabian.
Fabian came to BuildaBridge as a volunteer herself and quickly developed a passion for using creativity to change the lives of others. A trained dancer with more than 15 years of experience, she felt right at home in this community of artists, teachers and healers. Working in an administrative capacity has brought her into contact with people from all walks of life.
“I am excited about the program that we are developing with Bhutanese refugees in South Philadelphia,” said Fabian.
BuildaBridge, HIAS Pennsylvania and The Nationalities Service Center are collaborating with Bhutanese refugee elders who have immigrated to South Philly. Many have lived in refugee camps in Nepal for decades before settling here. On Friday, Nov. 14, the elders will share their stories of struggle and survival with a mural at the Nationalities Services Center located at 1216 Arch Street, 4th Floor. BuildaBridge hopes that sharing their narratives will connect the elders to younger generations who have yet to see the beauty of Bhutan.
For a city in dire need of healing, BuildaBridge may be exactly what many residents need to transition from surviving to thriving.
-All text, images and video produced by Kelsey Dubinsky and Gabrielle Clark.