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    Kids in transition create art that works

    As part of a summer camp to enrich the lives of children in homeless families, an art gallery gives them a chance to express themselves in functional art.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 4, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Six-year-old Steven Wright Jr. nestles next to his father, showing off his masterpieces: a purple tie-dyed T-shirt, a glass plate glazed with rich shades of blue and a fork adorned with clay ghosts and worms.

    His father, Steven Wright Sr., came to check out the artwork Friday at the Something Fishy gallery. It was the last day of a weeklong art class for children whose families live at the Homeless Emergency Project, where people pay reduced rent for apartments while working to get back on their feet again.

    "I hate that it's ending," the elder Wright said. "I think it really helped him a lot as far as getting along with other kids and working with his hands."

    All 21 children from the homeless project are taking part in a summer camp that gives them an opportunity to do things they may never have done before. The camp ends later this month. They visit Disney World, swim with dolphins in Key Largo and tour the Intracoastal Waterway with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

    "We want them to see that there's more out there. If you don't know about art or Disney World, you're not going to strive. Hopefully, it's an incentive to them," said Sandra McKenna, a spokeswoman for the homeless project.

    For most of the kids, the camp was just plain fun. For Omayra Zayas, 11, making a tie-dyed shirt was "magic."

    Martaze Townsend, 11, especially noticed the effect that creating art had on his fellow participants.

    "I like how little kids can settle, think and do what they've got to do. If they settle down, they'll be straight and do nice stuff. That's what I try to teach my brothers now," he said.

    This is the first time that the gallery hooked up with the Homeless Emergency Project and both parties called it a "win-win" situation. Rebecca Lett, a homeless project child advocate, drove by the gallery six weeks ago and saw a sign advertising kids classes. She called gallery owner Patti Spence to see whether the children could visit for a day. Spence offered her an entire week. Businesses and private donors also chipped in to foot the bill.

    Spence said her gallery often caters to affluent families, so she relishes opportunities to help out struggling members of the community.

    Art teachers Marla Puccinelli and Marsha Goins, who are twin sisters, taught the class. They spoke to a child psychologist to learn about the issues facing the kids. Both said they were surprised by the experience.

    "It's exhausting and energizing at the same time," Goins said. The kids don't always share their feelings, she said, "but when the parents come up and rave, we know we've done a good job," she said.

    The focus was on creating art that is functional. So the kids made silverware, pillows, T-shirts and pencil cases.

    "I think it gives kids a sense of accomplishment and a sense of permanence which they don't have," McKenna said.

    Spence thinks the partnership was a success and is planning future ventures with the Homeless Emergency Project. She is inviting the children back for Christmas and for camp next summer. Her gallery is also planning a fundraiser for the homeless project.

    Children get a lot from the art project, but the biggest bonus is pretty basic, according to Barbara Green, homeless project administrator.

    "When children come into the shelter, they've experienced lots of problems. This gives them a chance to just be children," she said.

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