Nestled on Empire Street, amid restaurants and galleries, is AS220, a community of artists. Walk upstairs at 115 Empire and you’ll find brightly painted rooms with murals that continue to grow and paintings that multiply by the week. Photographs cover one wall, depicting the budding artists who have gotten their start there.
This community is not made up of career painters or professional graphic designers, though. Or, at least, not yet. The space is home to AS220 Youth, a program that brings the arts to young people in Rhode Island, and particularly those from the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston.
And on Monday, students and staff from the program were in Washington, D.C. to accept a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“We’re very excited. We’ve been acknowledged as a model program in the United States for doing visionary youth arts programs,” said Anne Kugler, youth director for AS220 Youth.
The award is given to only 12 programs nationwide, making it the highest honor for out-of-school arts programs that celebrate the creativity of young people, and particularly those from underserved communities. AS220 Youth participants are concentrated primarily in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, though it is open to young people ages 14 to 21 statewide. The majority of AS220 students were first introduced to the program while detained at the Training School, where artists-turned-teachers have shared their gifts since 1998.
Training School participants who are still school-aged take classes after their tutoring time, between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. Participants with a high school diploma or GED take courses during the school day, from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. At any given time, AS220 faculty is working with 70 young people at the Training School.
AS220 also has a relationship with UCAP, a Providence middle school for students who are at risk of dropping out. Integrating these students with those who have served time at the Training School allows participants to learn from one another and build a support network of friends who want to improve their lives.
“It is a real important aspect of our program that it is blended. There’s a lot of peer role modeling that happens,” Kugler said.
She added that these participants develop mentor relationships with one another that extend beyond the AS220 Youth program hours.
“For kids who have been in DCYF care their whole life, having someone show up on the weekends and take them to a movie is really what it’s all about,” she said.
Working with these populations is a challenge, Kugler concedes, but she believes it is important work. AS220 Youth started as an in-house program at the Training School, and expanded to after-school programming in 2002.
“As soon as kids got out, there were no opportunities in the community for them to continue their work,” she said.
The program has since served 700 young people with minimal staff. AS220 has six full-time employees, five part-time employees and a number of volunteer instructors. While many instructors came to AS220 as professional artists, they have seen their roles expand into the realm of social work. Kugler said program coordinators plug students into internship or professional opportunities, connect them with social services and help them access additional resources like food stamps. In the summer, a grant through the Department of Labor and Training enables AS220 to put participants into paying jobs.
In order to effectively serve the population, Kugler adds that they must earn the trust of young people who might have had negative experiences with authority in the past.
“We work with a very high-need group of young people. A big part of our work is just building relationships – providing a community space for young people,” she said. “What they need are stable, long-term relationships.”
To provide those relationships, AS220 staff tries to connect with young people not only about art, but also on a more personal level.
“You can train an artist to be a social worker. The more you can do through one sturdy, solid, consistent relationship, the better,” Kugler said.
AS220 Youth can participate in a number of courses, which are primarily dictated by the interests of students. The Empire Street studio is home to a dark room, recording studio, computer room for digital media and courses in painting, drawing, dance, songwriting, media writing, video game design and more. Photography, hip-hop dance and emcee writing are especially popular. Forty classes meet each week at three different AS220 sites.
“It often feels like a little art factory,” Kugler said.
Sixteen-year-old Justin Espinal has been in the photography program for three and a half years. He came to AS220 Youth through his school, UCAP. A staff member, Miguel Ross, visited UCAP to talk about the program and it piqued Espinal’s interest.
“I found him to be pretty cool and I wanted to spend more time with him,” he said.
It turned out, Espinal really liked photography too.
“I take pictures of anything,” he said, adding that landscapes and portraits are of particular interest to him.
This week’s trip was his first to D.C., and he said he couldn’t wait to see the sights.
“I can’t wait to just look around and take pictures of the monuments,” he said.
Participants spend as few as three hours a week in one class, or as many as 20 hours a week by going to multiple classes and hanging out in the studio daily. The studio is open Monday through Friday after school and on Saturday for another five hours.
As simple as it sounds, Kugler said that part of the benefit of AS220 Youth is teaching at-risk youth how to learn and take responsibility for themselves. Programs teach them about being prompt, holding true to your word and practicing a skill in order to improve. Participants are also given resume help and one-on-one support as they try to pursue education or a career. Best of all, Kugler sees participants’ self-esteem and confidence skyrocket.
Receiving a national award is a boost for Kugler, her staff and her students. They are hopeful that the recognition will help them pursue additional grants or funding opportunities, not to mention bring positive attention to the program.
A group of 20, including 10 participants, made the road trip to D.C., stopping to visit the monuments along the way.
“The Training School is not an easy environment to work in, so this validates what we’re doing,” Kugler said.
To learn more about AS220 Youth, visit as220.org or attend an upcoming event. The program will be honored at Providence City Hall on Nov. 28, with a reception for their award at the same time an AS220 Youth photography exhibit closes. There is also a parents night on Dec. 3 at the Training School and a showcase on Dec. 13.