As a DJ fills the second floor of a downtown building with an infectious beat, teens dance on the shiny wooden floor. Some play pool or have their pictures taken in a photo booth.
By the size of the smile on his face, it’s easy to see that Ja’ Kevion McLeod-McCullough is having a good time at the Friday night “carnivale,” a new weekly party sponsored by the Kansas City nonprofit ArtsTech.
There were many days, however, when times were anything but good. By all rights the 17-year-old Kansas City student could have given up on life.
Just shy of his fifth birthday, someone murdered his father. By the time he became a teen, he had to work nearly full time and turn over every dime to help pay the bills. As one of 14 children raised by a single mother, he struggled at home, and in school.
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It would have been simple to turn to drugs, gangs or crime.
Instead, thanks to ArtsTech, he’s going to college next year at the University of Nebraska to become an architect.
“ArtsTech has given me plenty of opportunities,” Ja’ Kevion says. “It’s amazing. I love being here.”
ArtsTech teaches urban youth marketable skills in visual arts, graphic design, photography, ceramics and computers.
Its new carnivales are part of the city’s Club KC, designed to give teens more entertainment options and keep them out of trouble. Club KC started in 2012 with evening basketball, video games and other activities at community centers. Last year the city doubled the program’s funding to $400,000, and now, through ArtsTech, Club KC has expanded its offerings to teens more interested in art and technology than sports.
But ArtsTech is much more than just a place to have fun. It has a dropout-recovery school and an arts program, and collaborates with police, courts, schools, the Full Employment Council and more.
Its young artists even get paid to work on city projects.
“One of our most recent ones is the new Kansas City Crime Lab and Police Station at 27th and Prospect with the city and J.E. Dunn (construction company),” says ArtsTech’s executive director Dave Sullivan. “We engaged four local neighborhoods in a daylong painting project where we painted eight large murals that went around the campus and on the construction trailer.”
Ja’ Kevion joined nearly 100 other teenagers at one of the recent carnivales, at the ArtsTech center at 1522 Holmes. The party, planned by ArtsTech teens, offered music, dancing, games, food and opportunities to learn drawing, dancing and African drumming.
“Working with kids you learn you have to have a variety of activities so they don’t get bored,” Sullivan says. “And we’re trying to get the word out, so we are doing the tweeting and the Instagram and the social media. It’s slowly building up. I’m hoping for 100 kids the next couple of nights, and 150 near the end.”
Since it was founded in 1973 as the Pan Educational Institute in Independence, ArtsTech has helped countless teens find their way in life.
“Especially marginalized, disenfranchised and at-risk youth,” Sullivan says. “We take kids where they are and try to help them move forward.”
Through ArtsTech, Ja’ Kevion got back on track with his schoolwork, found an artistic outlet by painting and working with ceramics, and got into college.
Aside from the parties, the center helps more than 100 urban kids per week.
For example, in the My Arts program, teens paint, draw, work with ceramics and more. The program is sponsored by the Jackson County COMBAT (anti-drug task force) and the prosecutor’s office.
Digital Connectors trained 16 Hogan Academy students to use computers; in turn, those students will teach what they learned to 200 senior citizens.
One of the people in attendance at the recent carnivale: Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who had his picture drawn and even got up and danced.
“They are doing something that is absolutely needed,” James says. “We knew not everybody wanted to play basketball, soccer or volleyball. This is an outlet that’s multi-faceted, where you can engage in things that interest you. And with Kansas City being so immersed in art, it only makes sense that we would try to make sure that young people have an artistic outlet if they wanted it.”
That outlet helped Jasmine Fluker, 17, of Kansas City immeasurably.
“ArtsTech has changed me, genuinely,” she says. “It has given me a place to express myself. It’s more than just the mayor giving us this night to take people off the street. We have an environment that is safe and fun.
“But for those who need help, we have people they can talk to so they don’t have to keep it all bundled up. I was one of those people. When my father died in 2012 I didn’t want to talk about it because I thought emotions were something for the weak. That’s a bad thing to think.”
An artist who enjoys painting and drawing, Jasmine soon found ArtsTech and the strength to continue.
“I was like, oooh. Let’s get into this so I can help other people feel like they have a place to come, too.”
Sullivan, who previously worked in various capacities at De Lasalle Education Center, has been at ArtsTech for 16 years.
“What we try to do is transform kids’ lives who have not done well in other settings,” he says. “We do a lot of work with juvenile offenders (and) with kids who just need a break. We use art and technology to engage kids in different ways to learn about themselves, and learn about what it takes to get a job and keep a job.”
Many praise Sullivan for his tireless work.
“He’s phenomenal,” says Sister Loretto Marie Colwell, director of the Seton Center, a local social service agency. “He’s constantly doing things for other people, and looks for nothing for himself.”
Sullivan brushes off such compliments.
“It’s easy when you know it’s making a difference,” he says. “We have kids who are graduating. We have kids who weren’t going to school, and now they are. And now we have kids going to college. I think more than 90 percent of the kids in the My Arts program are going to college.
“What ArtsTech does is give them a foundation to help them build upon themselves. We look at them as our greatest piece of art.”
ArtsTech gets its money from many places. The Full Employment Council pays for its dropout school. The My Arts program is funded by Jackson County COMBAT. It also gets federal grants.
Glenda Bainbridge, program manager with the Jackson County Family court, appreciates ArtsTech.
“Many of the youth we deal with who get in trouble are also very creative,” she says. “They lack the skills to respond to people or express themselves in a positive way. … When kids are given the opportunity to be creative, whether it’s through painting or rap doing graphics arts, they can express themselves in a positive way.
“Almost all of our kids in Family Court do programs through ArtsTech. They are creating art, giving something back, and they enjoy it.”
Perhaps Jasmine Fluker sums it up best.
“Strength comes from within,” she says. “And if you need that stepping stone to get that strength out of you, come to ArtsTech. It’s at 1522 Holmes. They will welcome you with open arms.”
To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Free parties for youths will be held from 7:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays through Aug. 8 at ArtsTech, 1522 Holmes. The final party will be Aug. 16 at Union Station.
The first-ever ArtsTech Golf Tournament Fundraiser is scheduled for Sept. 29 at Winterstone Golf Course, 17101 E. Kentucky Road in Independence. Cost is $100 per golfer. Prizes offered. To register, donate, sponsor or for more information, call Paula Davis at 816-461-0201, ext. 308, or email email@example.com.