washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Virginia > Alexandria > Extra Cover Stories

Using Arts to Craft Higher Self-Esteem

An Innovative Program In Alexandria Gives Troubled Girls a Chance To Improve Their Lives And Living Quarters

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page VA16

Tall and lean, a paint-smeared apron hanging from his neck, artist Steve Prince stands before a clutch of teenage girls explaining the strong foundation necessary to build something as simple as a chair.

Without solid support, he tells them, a brick wall would be unstable. Even the pyramids in Egypt would have fallen.

At the end of each Space of Her Own (SOHO) class, participants gather in a circle to discuss what they liked about that night's class and to learn everyone's name. The program is for at-risk girls ages 12 to 14. (Photos Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

"The foundation is the most important part," Prince says, with 15 pairs of eyes glued to the felt-tip marker in his left hand as he slashes and dashes lines on a giant sheet of paper to illustrate.

The artist and educator has driven from North Carolina to the Art League warehouse in Alexandria this Thursday evening to teach the girls about his craft. He is starting the girls on a project to decorate bedroom chairs. But his lecture is as much a metaphor for life and the challenges that have brought the teenagers here as it is about the artistic aesthetic.

"Don't feel you can't do this," Prince assures the class about the project to come. "You're all here for a reason. We're here together for a reason."

Known as Space of Her Own or SOHO, the program was designed to serve low-income girls considered "at risk" -- a term officials use to describe myriad troubles, including delinquency and habitually running away from home. Officials say about half the program's participants are on court-ordered probation for crimes that include shoplifting and assault.

The girls were steered to the program by the juvenile justice system, social workers or educators who wanted to help provide them with some direction and stay clear of trouble until they can find their own way.

But what has inspired the girls to come to this warehouse at Duke and Union streets two nights a week rather than hang out with friends was not an official mandate. Rather, it was a clever ploy by officials with Alexandria's Court Service Unit and the Art League, who created and run the program.

It goes something like this: Learn about art, hang out with a mentor and in 16 weeks you will be treated to a new bedroom like you've seen on the hit show "Trading Spaces" -- complete with a surprise revealed at the end.

"They think they're signing up because they want a new bedroom, but they get hooked," said co-manager Linda Odell, program coordinator for the Alexandria Court Service Unit. "They start to really care about each other."

The arts-based mentoring program was started in 2003 to serve girls ages 12 to 14 with the hope of giving them an appreciation for the arts while developing positive, long-term relationships between the teens and their mentors.

Officials believed it would reduce crime and promote the overall success of the program's participants in school, home and the community.

The girls and their mentors -- volunteers from the community -- meet twice a week after school to attend sessions in team building, art, space planning and life skills such as phone etiquette and making smart food choices.

Each mentor volunteers at least 200 hours of service during the project, which is supported by the annual $12,000 commitment of Alexandria's Youth Fund, and agrees to a yearlong mentorship of the teenagers.

CONTINUED    1 2 3    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company