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Putting At-Risk Teens to Work — as Artists

by Jerome Weeks 6 Aug 2009 10:15 PM

Seven weeks and 68 teens, one gallery exhibition and a musical theater show. Add it up, and you have a national award-winning program that tries to impart life skills to kids in trouble. The Creative Solutions summer camp finds juvenile probation officers working with Big Thought, the creative learning organization. Jerome Weeks reports on this year’s program at Southern Methodist University.


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lisa schmidt Creative Solutions is a creative arts summer course. The participating teenagers are sent there by Dallas County juvenile probation officers. But what the teens encounter isn’t just some outlet to express themselves in music and paint.

Creative Solutions has been called an arts “boot camp” for a reason.

[Shouted and stomped opening drill: “Break it down! About — attention! About — attention! About — face!“]

The 68 teens in the Creative Solutions program are not called students. They’re employees. They have a job. Their job is to create a gallery exhibition of art works and a musical theater production. And they have seven weeks to do both.

Lisa Schmidt (above) has directed Creative Solutions for 15 years.

LISA: “They’re learning responsibility. They’re learning teamwork. They’re learning how to follow through. They’re learning how to show up on time for a job. They’re learning how to dress appropriately, how to communicate with their boss – all those things that are necessary to keep a job today.”

Most of the teenagers are on probation because of truancy. Some are guilty of misdemeanor offenses – like drinking alcohol. Probation officers refer teens to Creative Solutions because they’re associating with gangs. But they’re also the kind of young people who might benefit from some self-discipline.

LISA: “To get into the program they don’t have to demonstrate any talent — whatsoever [laughs]. Many of the kids do have a great deal of talent. They’ve already been studying art either on their own, self-taught, or maybe they’ve been taking classes at school. Some of them have serious, serious learning disabilities and challenges. What we’re trying to do is help these kids gain life skills.”

When he was 16, Robert was incarcerated at the Dallas County Youth Village for indecent exposure.

ROBERT: “I was first put on probation when I was 13. But I kept violating, which caused my probation to get extended. I violated it one more time and that’s why I got sent to the Dallas County Youth Village.”

Robert read about Creative Solutions and was sent to the camp. That was three years ago. He’s been back every summer since. He discovered talents for poetry and acting he didn’t know he had. Now 19, Robert calls the program a life-changing experience. Which he had to work at.

solutions galleryROBERT: “It’s a whole lot of work. You’ve got to have a whole lot of patience because you have different kids you don’t even know. Some are quiet, some is just loud and obnoxious. But you gotta know how to talk to them.”

Schmidt and the professional artists who teach these teens confront more than just educational problems.

LISA “The kids many of them have a lot of anger. They have a lot of anger at their families, for maybe letting them down. They’re aware of the fact that their parents are not there for them. Many of the kids come from abusive situations so there’s a lot of anger, a lot of hurt. We ask the kids to write about their lives for the plays, so they do. And the stories – they’re raw.”

[Crowd noises from the lobby before the opening of this year’s show, The Switch]

Creative Solutions has served more than 20,000 teens from 14 to 18 years old, and the program won an arts-education award in 2004 from the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities. For three years now, Creative Solutions has been held at Southern Methodist University. It’s a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, SMU and Big Thought, the creative learning organization. At the end of the seven-week program, the gallery exhibition and the theater performance — this year’s is called The Switch — are held at the Meadows School of the Arts.

LISA: “We’re so lucky to be here because we’ve been sort of bopping around from home to home. Now to have first-class arts studio, first-class theater, it makes a huge difference. And then the kids can really begin to see themselves as maybe going to college because now they’ve been on a college campus.”

Robert is one of those lucky ones. He’s been admitted to Sterling College in Kansas. He wants to study — radio journalism.

[Ending song and stomp drill — “Break it down.”]

Final performance of The Switch Friday, Aug. 7 at 1 p.m. in the Margo Jones Theater at SMU.