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Finding their voices: Arts grant helps young women in state custody gain confidence

  • Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, leads a group at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Katie Cohn, the assistant director of educational services at Department of Youth Services, participates in an theater class lead by Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the executive director of Enchanted Circle Theater, participates in an theater class lead by Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brooke Brindle, a child care worker, participates in an theater class lead by Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bruce Mendelsohn, a Department of Youth Services employee, participates in an theater class lead by Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, listens as a student from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program reads a poem during an introductory exercise before rehearsing a play as part of a grant the school received through the National Endowment for the Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, listens as a student from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program reads a poem during an introductory exercise before rehearsing a play as part of a grant the school received through the National Endowment for the Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg, executive director of Enchanted Circle Theater, and Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, listen as a student from Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program reads a poem during an introductory exercise before rehearsing a play GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, leads a group at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Priscilla Kane Hellweg, executive director of Enchanted Circle Theater, and Tony Jones, director and teaching artist with Enchanted Circle, listen as a student from Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program reads a poem during an introductory exercise before rehearsing a play. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@ecutts_HG
Tuesday, March 27, 2018

SOUTH HADLEY — Every Monday, artist Tony Jones comes to the squat, institutional-looking building, its bland exterior belied by the printed and hand-drawn posters that line the walls inside, where he’s come to teach a small group of high school students.

Jones often starts class by ringing a set of small Tibetan tingsha cymbals while his students raise their hands in the air and slowly bring them down as the sound fades. Soon, though, hearty laughter fills the room.

Last Monday was no exception, the enthusiasm apparent as four young women read aloud their deeply personal poems and worked on a scene from a play about apartheid in South Africa.

The joyous cacophony may seem a profound contrast to both the subject material and the location — the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps South Hadley Girls Treatment Program — but it is an important piece of the women’s rehabilitation.

Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a partnership with Holyoke’s Enchanted Circle Theater, the state’s Department of Youth Services uses arts integration to build self-awareness, positive self-presentation skills, and artistic expression for girls in trauma and transition.

The Gazette, as well as representatives from DYS, the Collaborative for Educational Services and Enchanted Circle Theater, attended the class March 19.

Because the four young women are in state custody — they all were placed at the facility by the state’s juvenile justice system — their last names and photographs of their faces have not been used for this story.

“When I came here, when I first got committed, I thought it was just going to be going downhill,” said Adrianna, one of the four young women. “Nobody was going to be happy, there wasn’t going to be any joyful times. I’ve learned that there are opportunities that can help me when I get out. This group has helped me express myself more to tell people things. I would never have thought of that being able to happen.”

The shortest one in the class by inches, Adrianna came to the program a “one-word girl,” her English and language arts teacher, Karla Mezzetti, said. Now, though, Adrianna appears as a poised young person able to discuss difficult topics like race with an eloquence many adults do not possess.

“I think, through her writing, she has learned to express herself and maybe use complete thoughts instead of saying one word and expecting everyone to understand what she is saying,” Mezzetti said.

The partnership between the school’s English language arts class and the Enchanted Circle Theater has the students working on theater arts as well as original writing. The course is broken into three main themes or seasons: finding your voice, expanding your horizons and reaching an audience.

“I think creativity is one of the most important skills that we can teach young people,” said Katie Cohn, DYS assistant director of educational services.

A $30,000 NEA grant the Collaborative for Educational Services received in June 2017 has been used to fund two programs — one in South Hadley and another in Westborough. The program also receives funding from DYS.

“This grant has allowed us to achieve a new depth and breadth of programming with the partnership with Enchanted and DYS,” said Magda Spasiano, DYS Arts Initiative program manager.

Artist residencies previously lasted for eight to 10 weeks. This school year, the residency is six months long.

In that time, the young women have been able to build a relationship with Jones which, in turn, helps him pull the best out of each student.

“My goal has always been to help youth find their voice, to stand taller in their truths, to stand taller in who they are, to know that they have options and maybe give them a new approach in viewing things so maybe in the future, a choice they might have made in the past, is now different because they are looking at it through a different lens,” Jones said. “They’ve grown. They are now asking questions. They are standing taller, more confident.”

The arts program also gives the students something to look forward to, Mezzetti added.

“They may not have the love for history or math class, but it’s like ‘Tony is coming. Oh yeah!’ They are enthusiastic and they can’t wait,” she said. “I like seeing that joy.”

For Kay, the program has helped her build confidence that, in turn, has made her a more engaged and informed student. She said she now asks questions when she doesn’t understand something instead of just trying to figure it out on her own.

“Sometimes in English, I’ll be falling asleep, but at Enchanted Circle, it incorporates the material to help you understand it better in a way you want to learn it because it’s not so boring to you,” Kay said.

Following an introductory exercise and the ringing of the cymbals, each young woman read a poem they had written. Standing in front of a room full of people — mostly strangers — Zainab read her poem, “Let me tell you something,” which talks about her family’s past and her upbringing.

“When I was in regular school, I wouldn’t ever in a million years go up and go talk to everybody and share a poem,” Zainab reflected after class. “But now I am more confident. I can go up and be like, ‘This is me. I’m going to do it.’”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.