Nonprofit helps youth paint brighter future

By Bonnie Berger

Life in the projects is a daily struggle for consistency, proper nutrition and overcoming negative influences. During that struggle, art often falls through the cracks.

Waco Arts Initiative, Baylor 2009 alumna Grace Ladd’s brainchild, tries to bring creativity and passion into children’s lives through art, music and theater.

Striving to bring consistency into chaotic areas, Waco Arts Initiative volunteers spend two days a week in the South Terrace and Kate Ross housing projects furthering art appreciation.

A typical program starts as students trickle in from school, and volunteers introduce the day’s activities, allowing ample time for questions, construction and a final presentation of their finished work. Partnering with Campus Kitchen, healthy snacks are provided before the kids go home.

“Right now, we’re focusing on one neighborhood at a time and investing one at a time,” Ladd said. “We’re making change rather than expanding over such broad places.”

Utilizing imaginative outlets, volunteers reap the benefits of the trust and rapport they’ve gained with students.

“Mentoring gives them specific one-on-one time that can be hard to get at home or in school, so we’re able to really invest in them individually,” said Carrollton junior and volunteer Antonia Terrazas. “It really gives [kids] a chance to build relationships with volunteers who are passionate about kids and about art.”

The initiative started during Ladd’s sophomore year, as she and two friends frequently ventured into South Terrace government housing. What started with kickball and playtime revealed a deeper need for structured creativity.

“We started getting to know people and figuring out where the need was,” Ladd said. “It clicked with me my senior year to do art with these kids since most schools in Waco don’t have art classes. It’s teaching children to be innovators and creative thinkers and think outside the box. … That’s what they don’t have in their schools.”

As Ladd’s vision grew, so did involvement from local organizations. Collaborative efforts among Urban Gardening Coalition, Congress Clothing, Common Grounds and many others provide Waco Arts Initiative with venues for benefits, monetary donations and partners to invoke change, Ladd said.

“A big thing is making the model of Waco Arts replicable to other places because it is unique and it is helpful to Waco,” she said. “There aren’t many people going to the projects and bring art to the kids. Because we have a presence there, it’s a point of entry.”

Determined to strengthen that presence, volunteers devote time and energy to sharing art in unconventional ways.

“We have amazing volunteers that really understand the mission,” Ladd said. “This isn’t a baby-sitting time, or a time to play and then leave [the kids] and never see them again. Their environments are switching constantly. There’s no consistency. So, having our volunteers understand the impact they’re making is huge.”

Through a mutual love of art, volunteers and students are able to build lasting relationships, beyond the time they spend together at Waco Arts Initiative.

“Art is a very human thing our volunteers love just like our students,” Ladd said. “It’s encouraging a quality of life within the students we’re working with, but our volunteers also.”

Artistic skill or knowledge isn’t necessary to volunteer, Terrazas said, emphasizing that an open heart and a desire to build relationships is key.

“I’ve been able to give my art input where I can,” she said. “Really, for me, it’s been about building those relationships and getting to know the kids on an individual basis and building that trust. It’s been the first volunteer experience where I get to see what consistency does.”

However, merging the Baylor Bubble with less affluent areas of Waco proves challenging for volunteers bent on instantly fixing the area.

“There’s always this present tension that we’re Baylor kids and we’re in their world,” Terrazas said. “We’re trying to connect … without bringing our presuppositions and try to see what we can bestow.”

Yet, as relationships grow, the divide between the privileged Baylor circle and the more unexplored parts of Waco yields a rich harvest.

“If I wasn’t involved in Waco Arts, I wouldn’t know these kids, I wouldn’t know these families or volunteers,” said Austin junior and Waco Arts intern Haley Propes.

Waco Arts Initiative won’t stop there. Ladd predicts growth and fresh executive support for the coming year.

“I envision churches with the Kate Ross neighborhood, different organizations taking on different neighborhoods and implementing the Waco Arts model to use,” Ladd said.

Although Waco Arts Initiative predominantly works with children, Ladd aspires to expand that outreach to families, as well.

“Right now it’s really important the kids have fine art access but I’d also like to do something with the families,” she said. “They could be learning a craft or trade. Maybe that’s building a table or decorating their home. Maybe that’s our way of doing a little bit more.”

Ladd is in the process of compiling an executive committee, which will allow qualified volunteers the opportunity to use passion and skills to make a difference.