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Beacon Senior News

The art of volunteering: Art Heritage volunteers promote creativity in local schools

Jun 01, 2018 08:49PM ● By Beacon Senior News

Benita Bramer, a long-time Art Heritage program volunteer, and students show off artwork from Scenic Elementary.

In the fall of 1990, I stood in front of the entrance to my son’s kindergarten room. His eyes were as big as saucers and mine were misting over.

Suddenly, he let go of my hand and his teacher led him into the line of children waiting to enter their classroom for the first time. His new backpack hung below his waist as he waddled forward. I watched his perfectly gelled little head bob along then disappear through the doorway and around the corner.

I knew in that moment that I had to find a way into that classroom and to experience this part of his big new world.

I looked into volunteer opportunities with School District 51. By week two, one volunteer position remained unfilled: teaching art.

At the time, the Art Heritage program was new to the district. The name both intrigued and intimidated me—after all, I’m no artist.

Students in the Art Heritage Program

Art Heritage volunteers open a whole new world for children to explore. The program is in 27 schools and reaches approximately 8,000 children every school year.

When I arrived at the first training class, I automatically assumed that everyone there was or had been an art major. I relaxed after overhearing a few conversations and I realized that it was nearly everyone else’s first time as well.

By the end of the training, I was excited to get started. I began by teaching art lessons to kindergartners and continued teaching in every grade as my own children progressed through elementary school. Now I teach in my grandchildren’s classes. By the time my youngest child left for middle school in 2001, I had volunteered with the Art Heritage program for 11 years.

What is Art Heritage?

Art Heritage is a trained volunteer program designed to bring art culture and history into local elementary schools, and to introduce famous artists and their work to children.

In the late 1980s, many people considered art to be more of a luxury rather than a necessary tool for developing brain functions and fine motor skills. Many schools eliminated art programs from their curricula, as more emphasis and money was being put toward technology, computer skills and test scores.

Students in the Art Heritage ProgramThe Art Heritage program was created for School District 51 by a committee of creative professionals consisting of local business people, Junior Service League members, teachers and Mesa State College professors, to find solutions to the problems children faced due to lack of funding. They learned about The Great Artists Program in Bend, Oregon, and obtained permission to use the prototype at Nisley Elementary.

Pleased with the results and the program’s success, the committee and school board expanded it to include several more schools across the valley. Today, the Art Heritage Program is in 27 schools and reaches approximately 8,000 children every school year.

The program has grown and evolved under the leadership of Connie Robbins Brady, who has been the program coordinator since 1997. Brady, who retired in May, trained hundreds of volunteers during her tenure and dedicated endless hours to bringing this unique program to its pinnacle, enhancing it with even more diverse projects and creating opportunities to reach more children in the Grand Valley.

Exploring creativity

For the first eight years, only 12 artists were featured in the program’s lessons. Now the updated collection of artist biographies takes up a full three-drawer filing cabinet in the corner of Brady’s former office.

She researched and wrote many of them herself.

Student and Volunteer in the Art Heritage Program

“The artist must stand out,” Brady said about the process of choosing artists to include in the lessons. “The artist must have had some influence on other artists throughout their lifetime, and their lives and lifestyles must be relatable to the children.”

The artist’s personal creative processes are also important, and their artistic style must be simple enough for children and volunteers to replicate in the classroom.

Lessons cover a range of periods and movements in art history, from prehistoric to impressionism and abstract to sculpture. Nearly every known genre of art is covered.

By the time students move on to middle school, they will have studied 36 different artists. Participating schools are assigned an artists’ rotation each year so that no student ever studies the same artist twice. Every project is chosen and placed in the rotation so that different artists, styles, mediums and skills are presented, encouraging students to explore their own creativity.

“There are many children today who have never been exposed to any kind of art in their lives,” Brady said. “They have no idea how to hold a paint brush or what to do with a lump of clay. Art Heritage is sometimes the only exposure many kids ever have to encourage them to use their own creativity and imaginations.”

Art Heritage opens a whole new world for children to explore through art. While some kids may never get the opportunity to see a Rembrandt or Picasso in an art museum, Art Heritage classes teach them about notable artists and allow them to dabble in projects to enhance their overall understanding of art and different mediums.

Brady said the belief that art is not essential in education is misguided. When citizens see Art Heritage volunteers in action, they notice how many areas of the child’s brain are being used as they plan their project, implement skills and techniques, and even make mistakes.

The program has received greater respect and support from the educational community thanks to Brady. Art Heritage has impacted approximately 160,000 students during her tenure and thousands more in prior years.

How to volunteer

Art Heritage volunteers

While the program has grown and changed marginally over the years, one thing that hasn’t changed is the children’s joy and excitement when a volunteer enters the classroom.

Art is one area where kids can have fun, learn and make mistakes. Volunteers focus on encouragement, not criticism.

Volunteers come from all walks of life: retired teachers, business people, parents and grandparents. Many parents volunteer while their kids are young, but once they move on to middle school and become involved in new activities, so do the parents.

Seniors are ideal for the Art Heritage program, as they bring a sense of longevity to the classroom.

Brady said the most important requirement for volunteers is a commitment for one full school year.

“The Art Heritage program is a completely volunteer program, and it’s so important to know that the children can count on us to be there,” she said.

But this one-of-a-kind program wouldn’t be as successful without its volunteers.

“There are some schools in our district that have no volunteers at all,” Brady said. “Help is needed district wide.”

If you are interested in volunteering or would like more information, call 254-5489.