I've worked in the arts for almost 20 years and most of those businesses were non-profits. Balancing funding sources and all stakeholder needs is tricky. Add making a case for the arts which many consider disposable and that's really tough. Early in my career I experienced the worst thing that can happen to your non-profit...close the doors.
The organization was Pathways to Development. The program provided "interest development" art classes to wards of the state in Cook County, Illinois (this includes Chicago). For those who don't know "wards" are children who live in foster care or group homes because they were abused or neglected. There were 19,000 children who were in the system at that time and were eligible for the program. I was with Pathways from 2001-2005 and the annual number of children served grew from 400-4,000.
How it worked:
Pathways was a program of -and funded by- the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS). They contracted a child welfare agency to operate the program. At Pathways we contracted different arts organizations who were experts in their mediums to arrange for teachers and supplies for the classes. Programs included musical instruments, all visual arts, drama, african dance and drumming, ballet, circus arts etc... We then analyzed the data or where the children lived and arranged for the classes to take place at sites near the families. At it's end we were contracting with 25 sites and 13 arts organizations.
The program was founded with the belief that children need more than food and shelter to grow into contributing members of society they need the opportunity to explore their interests.
..So true right!?
My role was mostly administrative but I did have occasional opportunities to work with the children directly. In either case I just loved knowing that I was helping these kiddos have an awesome experience. Making art for me is like eating or sleeping. I HAVE to make art and I know many of the kids I was serving were the same way.
Some of my favorite experiences include:
- Teaching an 8 year old how to play chess while his foster brother took guitar in the room next door.
- Getting a piano donated to one of my piano students. This little girl loved her lessons so much that the keyboard that's given to all the piano students got worn out. The donated upright was delivered to her house on Christmas Eve. When I got in the office on Dec. 26th there was a voicemail of her playing Christmas Carols for me.
- There were kids whose home address and Caregiver name changed 10 times while I was there (honest!) but they kept going to the photography class.
- Seeing kids hang their framed artwork by their bed in their group home.
We got mixed reasons as to why DCFS cut the funding. It resulted in myself and the staff being laid off. We literally put all of our files in boxes and stashed them in a closet. I've heard that the mentoring program continues at DCFS and the art program continued for a while in a much smaller capacity at DCFS but nowhere near the scope of what it once was. Every now and then I meet an artist who was a teacher through one of our service providers and we share stories of how awesome that time was.
I learned a ton through the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat!