In the summer of 2013, Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona wrapped up the summer camp series in the usual way. Having served more than 200 children and teens that summer at Multicultural Arts Camp, Theater Camp, and Hip Hop Camp, staff members and volunteers expected to say goodbye to the campers. They wished the children and teens well, knowing that they would likely not see very many of them again as they transitioned into different child welfare agencies or moved on to live with foster families, transition to independent living, or be reunited with biological parents. But that summer, as the final camp came to a close, a group of teens approached Free Arts staff and asked, “What’s next?” The staff members explained that camp was over and that we would hopefully see them again at an upcoming Free Arts Day or next summer at camp. “No,” they said, “We need to keep meeting. We’re like family now.” So, the small group of teens, eight in total, guided by a Free Arts intern, began meeting monthly at the Free Arts office. They created artwork, played music, shared a meal, and hung out. Occasionally, Free Arts would acquire tickets through a generous donor to take the teens to see live theater. They started visiting ASU’s Gammage biannually to see shows like Wicked, Motown, and, more recently, Hamilton. When camp season rolled around again, these eight determined young people established a process for inviting and accepting new members into their group. Dubbed the “Youth Leadership Team,” this group’s mission was to continue to feel connected and empowered, and to use their talents for good in the community. They brainstormed ways to conduct fundraisers for causes they believed in and spent an evening serving food at a local kitchen for homeless families.
Eventually, their greatest impact was made by returning to the Camp Series as mentors: young leaders who built bridges between the younger campers and older volunteers and staff members. With their leadership, camp participants engaged in activities more quickly and more comprehensively than ever before. Young campers looked to these leaders to understand that camp was safe and that the people running and volunteering for the camp cared about them and wanted to help.
During the following year, the Youth Leadership Team changed and expanded to include more teens and more focused activities. In 2017 the team became an alumni group, meeting quarterly for activities like Show Love, Get Love: An Evening of Self-love through Art, an end of summer celebration reflecting on the camp season, and, most recently, a real family Thanksgiving attended by more than 55 alumni and their family members. This event has become a Free Arts tradition and a way to truly celebrate the resilience of the alumni and the families (biological or otherwise) that work so hard to support these young adults.
Additionally, the alumni program has become a training ground with a goal of helping these young adults continue to build life skills and gain professional experience. Through a recently developed process, alumni apply, interview and complete a training process to secure apprenticeship positions in three Free Arts programs including the Camp Series. This summer, 13 alumni are apprentices with Free Arts’ Multicultural Arts Camp and Theater Camp.
Each apprentice works with and supports a mentor artist, counselor, or staff member who teaches alumni skills they need to work as a professional. Mentors scaffold alumni apprentices into leading activities and provide feedback to foster their personal and professional development. The program allows Free Arts to help alumni build resilience while cultivating the next generation of leaders.
In addition to the 13 alumni apprentices engaged in the Camp Series, one of the founding members of the Youth Leadership Team is serving as the Spoken Word Poetry teaching artist at Multicultural Arts Camp. Patience Briggs, now 24, is creating a safe space for children and teens with stories so similar to hers, to share their voices and their stories with each other and the public. Katie Deaton, who was only 14 when the Youth Leadership Team began, will serve as Theater Camp director this year, where she will lead teaching artists, counselors, alumni, and campers to create a full theatrical performance based on the campers’ own life experiences.
Free Arts couldn’t be prouder of these young leaders and the legacy that they are creating. Since the inception of the Youth Leadership Team in 2013, the impact of Free Arts programs has grown tremendously. As we look to the future, we hope to continue to provide opportunities and education to alumni and give them a place where they can belong, share their talents, grow their skills, and help build resilience in many more incredible young people like themselves.