When Project Create opened our first studio, we made sure that our program director was an art therapist. Our programs have a therapeutic approach–it’s woven through everything we do. Trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching has always been important to us. The children and youth and families we serve have amazing talent and extraordinary capabilities. What we do is give them a microphone to amplify their voices, give them a brush to paint, or give them a place to create. We provide the tools they need. Out-of-school-time programs–whatever the discipline–are vital to safety and security and sense of self for our city’s young people
Project Create was born in 1994 in a 100-square-foot space in Western Presbyterian Church in Foggy Bottom, co-located with Miriam’s Kitchen. We started by bringing kids from local schools back to the church to take art classes, then partnering with organizations that serve unhoused families to provide high-quality arts education and a creative outlet. We developed partnerships all around the city and took our programs into the community so we could reach young people. Most of the young people we served were moving around between temporary emergency housing and short-term housing. Even if we made a connection with them, that connection was vulnerable if we didn’t see them from week to week because they had moved. In any given year, we’re working with 15 to 20 partner organizations to provide programming where young people are. But we also needed a permanent location so kids could always find us.
We opened our first studio in Anacostia in 2015 and the opportunity to welcome people into our space was wonderful. Then a grant enabled us to purchase digital media equipment and we expanded into a building down the street to create a digital media studio. In December 2019 we held a capital campaign and purchased a 5,200-square-foot building, so we were able to house our music production, photography, visual art, dance studio, and our office space in one location. We moved in January 2020, began offering classes in February, then had to close in March because of Covid.
We transitioned to fully virtual programming within a few weeks, delivered art supplies to kids who were enrolled, and kept all of our teachers and staff employed. Teachers recorded their sessions for asynchronous learning–our YouTube page has about 60 recorded art lessons that are still available for anyone to use. At first, when we switched to virtual classes, there was a lot of interest and engagement. Kids weren’t attending school during quarantine, and they were so excited to have something interesting to do, even if it was only a couple hours per day. As kids returned to regular school days on Zoom, the last thing they wanted to do was stay on the computer after a long day at school.
Finally in June 2021 we were able to bring kids back in person for summer camp. Kids were so eager to be together and out of the house so there was really high demand for summer camp. Because of social distancing requirements we couldn’t take as many students as usual, so we had a big waitlist. We had to make sure the kids were safe.
One thing we quickly noticed was that our kids suffered during Covid. They were isolated, sad, and missing structure and interaction. Some of them came to us with anxiety and depression and needed additional support. A lot of our kids live in Wards 7 and 8. Many have experienced poverty, homelessness, violence, and other big challenges. Adding the stress of the pandemic on top of that was a lot.
We responded to this need by expanding our art therapy offerings. In 2021 we launched HeART Space for families of elementary school students, where we saw the greatest need. Taught by two art therapists, the 10-week program engages the whole family. It started online and became hybrid and now it’s fully in person. Each session, we work with five or six families. We all have dinner together and kids and their parents participate in art therapy sessions on identity, communication, family dynamics, and other topics. Families love it so much they often sign up to do it again. With more resources we could expand the program and add opportunities for middle and high schoolers and their families.
Fortunately, people are more willing to talk about mental health needs now. Kids are a lot more open about saying, “This is hard,” or “I’m struggling.” They are calling out the emotional labor of dealing with racism and poverty and the toll that it takes. We would expand all our therapeutic programs if we had more capacity, because the need is enormous. There’s been such a spike in child and teen anxiety and depression, and suicide rates are up. Kids have so few resources; it’s almost impossible to find a therapist in the District. Counselors who are trained to work with young people have waitlists. Lots of families don’t have the resources – time to search for the right therapist or insurance or money to pay for it. Project Create offers a completely free therapy program. There are spaces available in a community that has experienced a lot of hardship. Demand is only going to grow.
Finally we are all back in person, with an amazing schedule where young people of all ages can participate in up to three classes a night in any discipline. We’re partnering with The MusicianShip, DJ Quicksilva, and Washington Improv Theater, among others, for programming at the Project Create Arts Center in Anacostia. All of our classes are free. Anyone who wants to can take a class with us. The most important thing is that we are a safe space. We open our doors starting at 3pm and have open studio, where young people can have a snack or a sandwich, get settled in, relax, or work on their own projects. Classes start at 4:30. Kids can come after school and stay until 7 or 8, in a safe, enriching, stimulating, and educational space where they’re really cared for.
There’s not enough arts education in schools. Kids don’t have the opportunities they deserve to learn art–the skills and the opportunity to express themselves. And we know at Project Create that art can be healing too.