Category Archives: Program Design

Listen Deeply, Move Boldly: How The Care Center Builds Community

The following piece originally appeared in Mass Cultural Council’s Power of Culture blog, and was written by Mina Kim, Käthe Swaback, and Timothea Pham.

Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

Inside an unassuming Victorian-era building, just west of downtown Holyoke, is one of the nation’s most distinctive creative community development initiatives: The Care Center. It is an example of what can happen when culture and creativity form the foundation to dismantle systemic barriers for individuals, as well as communities.

Enter The Care Center, and on every wall, there is art by the students. Poems that probe the multiplicity of humanity’s realities fill the hallways. Drawings, photographs, and paintings are thoughtfully arranged and reflect various facets of each individual’s personality, journey, or a moment in time. Reminders of upcoming deadlines with the Department of Transitional Services, illustrated alphabet posters for toddlers, and notices of upcoming events hang all around. Young women’s voices, sighs, exclamations, and laughter float through the building, as each is a part of a transformative effort that seeks to break the cycle of poverty.

The Care Center opened in 1986 with the mission to provide resources for teen mothers and their families. 100% of the women are from low-income households, and 94% are women of color. In a culture that stigmatizes teen pregnancy and condemns young mothers, in particular, young mothers of color, The Care Center offers a different model of working with these youth. “20 years ago, we made an intentional shift,” said Anne Teschner, Director of The Care Center, while describing the evolution of the Center’s program development. Over time it moved from a more traditional social service organization, toward one that embraces the power of arts, education, and culture to build a different support system that offers greater socioeconomic mobility.

Challenging Assumptions

“We meet the young woman where they’re at,” explained Jenna Sellers, Director of Support Services. Rather than merely trying to level the playing field, The Care Center understands each individual requires specialized care respective of varying personalities and experiences. Being aware of the multi-layered context young mothers face is important as well, as the labyrinth of obtaining public resources for teen mothers can be long and arduous. Teschner described the many conversations over the years she had with the Department of Transitional Assistance as she lobbied to allow young mothers on assistance to have access to higher education through the completion of the Associate Degree.

“There’s an assumption that if you live in poverty, you don’t need intellectual stimulation or cultural access and, at the worst, don’t deserve it,” Teschner said as she and Ana Rodriguez, Director of Education, discussed the stereotypes society holds with regard to who is worthy, and who is not. “It’s important that these girls are celebrated…that they feel they’re as good as anyone else,” Rodriguez added.

Young women rowing
“Rowing is like my second family; the first is The Care Center,” shares Crystal who serves as coxswain for the rowing team that is a part of Rowing Strong, Rowing Together, a partnership between The Care Center, Mount Holyoke College, and Holyoke Rows. “It’s a stress reliever that helps us let go of everything we’re holding onto as we work together and help each other,” adds fellow rower AJ. Teschner introduced rowing and a robust academic curriculum to The Care Center’s programming after reviewing the types of activities, classroom setting, and programming offered at many private schools across the U.S. (Image: The Care Center.)

Teschner is not afraid to blaze trails and carries the advice of, “allow yourself as an organization to be bold and on the edge of discovery. This is what really brings in the oxygen.” Back in 1993, Teschner took a deep breath and launched the YouthReach Initiative at the Mass Cultural Council, a first of its kind state grant program that supported creative youth development through a social justice lens. YouthReach recognizes youth as agents of change, understanding them as a resource and partner in creating healthy communities. This acknowledgment of youth as assets within their communities has carried on in Teschner’s work, as she has consistently pushed the boundaries of perceptions around underserved youth.

In 2016, the Center, together with Bard College, launched the first college for women whose studies have been cut short due to pregnancy or parenthood. Known as the Bard Microcollege Holyoke, women who graduate from this program receive an Associate of Arts degree. Students often enter the Microcollege after completing The Clemente Course in the Humanities, an award-winning program, developed by Bard College and supported by Mass Humanities, that enables underserved and marginalized individuals to receive college credits while being introduced to works of literature, moral philosophy, art history, and critical thinking and writing. Both programs act as a gateway toward the pursuit of higher education, as is evident in The Care Center’s statistics.

On average, 95% of Care Center graduates are first in their families to attend college. 75% of Care Center graduates enroll in college, which is more than the 43% of students who graduate from high school nationally. The Microcollege, which during its 2016 inaugural session enrolled 10 students, now has 45. 100% of the College’s first cohort have graduated with an Associate’s Degree and have also gone on to pursue further studies at 4-year colleges including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Trinity, and The Elms College.

“We had a culture where young moms were being pushed out of public education…The Care Center filled a real void in the community in terms of making sure all of Holyoke’s young people have access to a good quality education,” said Mayor of Holyoke Alex Morse while speaking of The Care Center’s unique model.

Painting of a woman's torso covered in flowers, her arms holding an infant lying on her belly.
Student-made artwork exhibited at The Care Center

At the Care Center, high expectations around academic excellence go together with providing systems of support tailored for young mothers. Day care is offered for newborns and toddlers, along with early childhood education that promotes early literacy from a young age. Door-to-door transportation is provided to teen mothers to ensure every student has a ride to classes, medical appointments, and area services. An on-site nurse practitioner provides care five mornings a week, in addition to the support and transition counselors that guide the young women through personal and academic hurdles, including challenges endured by first-generation college students.

Creativity as a Gateway to Connection

Photos in the Care Center’s art studio depicting different masks for an art project exploring archetypes.

Arts, culture, and creativity play an integral role in the development of these young women, as art teacher Julie Lichtenberg noted, “The arts allow you to think inward and reflect…to be bigger than this moment.” Exploring archetypes in art studio, youth explore concepts of universal humanity and identity by creating masks that incorporate various patterns and materials reflective of select archetypes. Poetry has a deep and expansive presence at The Care Center, too. Students comprise the Editorial Board of Nautilus, an anthology of poems published by Care Center young women who draw inspiration from themselves, as well as renowned writers and poets who hold workshops and readings at The Care Center, such as Nikky Finney, Lesléa Newman, Junot Díaz, and Robert Pinsky. Remarking on the accessibility of poetry as an art form with the capacity to shift perspectives, Teschner said, “Poetry allows students access into the power of words and their own untapped capacity as writers. They’re able to take on a new role and become a part of the long public dialogue on the human experience.”

Being able to be a part of the “long public dialogue” is perhaps one of the most important takeaways of The Care Center and is key to the mothers being able to connect to oneself, each other, and to their broader community. Rodriguez shared, “The students serve as translators for each other while they’re at The Care Center.” AJ, Crystal, and fellow Care Center classmate, Tessa, emphasized the familial bonds shared among the young women, where youth feel safe to be themselves and are supported by staff who genuinely care. The girls belong to text groups with other Care Center women who offer each other words of encouragement and advice through various stages of their Care Center experience, whether they just started taking a computer class, or have graduated from the Microcollege. Care Center alumni who are at nearby colleges return to offer guidance or tutoring assistance, or to receive support and help themselves, both of which they know are always available to them.

The Roots of a Community

“Art and creativity is at the center of a lot of what we do, and that means not just thinking about visual arts, photography, or things that people can see…It starts with a focus on public education, and integrating arts into public education so that the extent of our success isn’t defined by our ability to attract artists from out of town [but developing] a pipeline of artists of local people that are representative of our constituencies of people, and making sure our current students are our future artists, creatives, and makers in the community.”

— Alex Morse, Mayor of Holyoke

The reach of The Care Center extends to spaces and people beyond the immediate building, as the Center is an active, creative hub in Holyoke and part of a larger network of teachers and artists from all over the Northeast, but especially those from Western Massachusetts. Instructors and faculty from area colleges run math and science programs through the Hypatia Institute. Students attend Humanities 108 sponsored by Greenfield Community College in a program developed to introduce a college-level course for youth preparing for the High School Equivalency exam. The Smith College Poetry Center works with The Care Center to build its robust visiting poets program, while Hampshire College offers access to its photography and film facility. And even though it may seem the bulk of The Care Center’s attention is focused on expecting and teen mothers, the organization shares its education, health, and cultural resources with other underserved women in Holyoke, as well as with area youth. For example, The Care Center (now in partnership with the Performance Project) has run the Teen Resource Project, an after-school creative youth development program for at-risk teens in partnership with the Holyoke Public Schools for over 30 years.

More recently, Way Finders, an affordable housing developer based in Springfield, broke ground on a new project, the Library Commons, a mixed-use development featuring 38 residential units for households at 60% or higher of the area median income, along with retail and cultural spaces. The Library Commons sits a few blocks south of The Care Center, near the Holyoke Public Library, and will include space dedicated to arts and culture programs at Roqué House. Named after Puerto Rican educator and suffragist Ana Roqué de Duprey, Roqué House hopes to further change ideas around who has a right to affordable and safe housing, as well as the pursuit of education, creativity, and self-fulfillment. Ten of the two- to three-bedroom units within the Library Commons will house teen parents who are enrolled in post-secondary education programs, while The Care Center will manage educational and cultural offerings, counseling, an artist-in-residence program, and additional ancillary support services to residents of the Commons.

First Lady Michelle Obama awarding the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to representatives from The Care Center.
The Care Center is a recipient of the 2011 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor recognizing community-based arts and humanities youth programs in the United States, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (Image: The Care Center)

“We joke that we cracked the code. A combination of high expectations, a matter-of-fact attitude toward success, and support works. We see the shift in the young women who come to The Care Center. It’s a posture change, a look in the eyes, an honest change in the way they look at the world,” Teschner said. Indeed, this ethos around high expectations and thinking beyond what exists is palpable within The Care Center, as well as city government, both entities which have examined what it means to integrate creativity and community.

This through-line between The Care Center and the city is evident in the close relationship shared between Care Center staff and numerous city departments, as well as in the sentiments expressed by youth.

“Holyoke is a city that cares about its people,” Tessa shared as she spoke of the rarity in finding a place like The Care Center that helps “make everything possible.” It’s also reflective of what can happen when organizations listen deeply, identify obstacles, and both courageously and creatively find solutions in partnership with other entities that share a common goal: a goal of developing a supportive city that truly invests in its community.

When asked to try and sum up all they had gained from being at The Care Center, Tessa (age 16), AJ (age 22), and Crystal (age 19) responded, with the following three statements:

“I have understanding.”

“I know I am capable.”

“I am successful.”

These outcomes reflect Teschner’s vision that includes the advice of, “Don’t be afraid to articulate your needs and vision. Be bold.” Following this advice has allowed so many young women to bring their dreams to fruition. These strengthened lives have also resulted in collective changes in our communities and inspire us all to take those next steps forward with passion and purpose in building brave futures together.

Podcast: Sonido Musica in Harmony

Eileen McCaffery and Julie JaronOn the Mass Cultural Council’s podcast, Creative Minds Out Loud, we spoke with Eileen McCaffery, Executive Director of Community Music School of Springfield, and Julie Jaron, Director of Visual and Performing Arts for the Springfield Public Schools, to discuss their work over five years on the Sonido Musica program, a partnership that aims to reduce Springfield’s high school drop-out rate through student engagement, leadership, and performance opportunities. What started with three public schools and 60 students has grown to 18 schools and nearly 1,000 student musicians! Now nearby Holyoke wants to replicate this model. Their goal was not to have the Community Music School replace music education in the public schools, but rather to help principals and administrators see the power of the arts working every day in their school.

Listen to the episode.

Read the transcript.

Check out other episodes featuring Creative Youth Development leaders.

From Hope to How: Youth Development and Music Engagement

Attendees at the Guild's 2018 preconference on Music EngagementLast fall at the National Guild for Community Arts Education Annual Conference in Baltimore, MD, Mass Cultural Council and Health Resources in Action presented to a large gathering of teaching artists, educators, and program leadership on the topic of Creative Youth Development and Music Engagement.

This was the start of a full-day workshop and site visits that provided attendees with ways to reinforce the natural alignment between youth development principles and strong music engagement experiences. The speaking alternated with performances from Baltimore’s emblematic OrchKids Program, and the participation of its charismatic and passionate founder Dan Trahey.

Performance at the Guild's 2018 preconference on Music Engagement
The day provided a variety of context for the exploration and execution of Creative Youth Development programming amongst practitioners from across the country, as well as an opportunity to visit and interact with work on the ground at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School, where youth from OrchKids and Believe in Music gave examples of the roles arts and culture play in their lives, and how it allows them to present themselves as leaders and artists to their communities. Through exercises of collective composition and performance, as well as beatmaking and songwriting, participants engaged with these young leaders.

At Mass Cultural Council, we believe that a consistent, strategic youth development approach can help organizations and teaching artists create a bridge between the hope that music engagement will make transformational change in young people’s lives and the intentional youth development practices for how to do it.

The following are some resources from the day, provided by Health Resources in Action:

In Conversation: Katie Wyatt and Dalouge Smith

Katie Wyatt and Dalouge Smith
We invited Katie Wyatt and Dalouge Smith to share a conversation around two different models of growing creative youth development programming at the city and state level.

Katie Wyatt is the Founder and Executive Director of KidzNotes and the Executive Director of El Sistema USA. Dalouge Smith is the President and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and a national leader in crafting an inclusive future of music and education in and out of schools.

Their conversation provides insight into the challenges and successes of working with public schools to achieve community goals, the potential policy implications and challenges that are facing this work today, and the gap between rural and urban environments.  The recording is approximately 1 hour long and features a curated discussion by these two innovative leaders.

Hear the recording by selecting the player above, or read the transcript.

Incorporating Behavioral Health Support for Students (and Staff)

“I’m working with a student whose drawings always depict someone getting shot or stabbed. What should I do?”

“The other day, a student told me that he’s thinking about coming out to his parents and he’s scared about how they’ll respond. I’m not sure what to tell him.”

“I think that one of my students may be homeless right now. Should I ask her about it?”

“One of the students in my class gets really angry and tearful any time that someone critiques his work. How can I help him and the other students handle critiques?”

ICA Teen Digital Photography students taking portrait photos of ICA Teen Slam Team, December 2014. Photo by Angela Mittiga.

In our work with youth, we encounter difficult issues on a weekly, if not daily (or hourly), basis. Working with students means dealing with situations that we may never have previously encountered. It means asking the question: “What should I do?” on a regular basis. Sometimes, the issues that students bring to us don’t seem to have an answer. In these situations, two heads are most always better than one. Consulting with colleagues can help guide your next steps and allow you to talk through an issue to gain a better understanding of it.

To help support students and staff, many schools have brought in behavioral health specialists, such as social workers, psychologists, and counselors. Depending on their areas of expertise, these specialists may be able to provide support in a number of areas, including:

  • Student behavioral health concerns (ex. depression and suicidal ideation, anxiety, trauma exposure, etc.)
  • Accessing local resources (ex. immigration services, family and child services, education advocates, etc.)
  • Crisis management (ex. addressing abuse/neglect concerns, providing support after trauma exposure, etc.)
  • Building social-emotional support systems (ex. helping develop structures and policies for helping staff address student’s behavioral health needs.)

How can after-school programs access support in addressing students’ behavioral health needs?

Last year, I began thinking about this question with the staff of Fast Forward, a teen program at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA). They have developed an education team that is passionate and knowledgeable about what they do, as well as highly engaged with and supportive of their students. As their programming has expanded and students have developed deeper relationships with staff, more issues that students are facing have come to the surface. To address these complex issues, the ICA reached out for a behavioral-health perspective.

Now, once every few weeks, the ICA education staff and I sit down together to discuss current concerns that they are facing in their work with students. Our conversations range from the staff’s work with individual students to issues around systems and policies. To give an example, three issues that we discussed in a recent meeting include:

  • A number of students were exposed to a violent incident in the community. How might the students respond to this event? What are typical responses to trauma exposure? When should staff be concerned about a student’s response and what should they do if they are concerned?
  • A student told a staff member that she was having suicidal thoughts. What next steps should the staff member take? What could the staff member have said when the student brought this up to her? What are signs of depression and suicidal ideation that staff can look out for?
  • One student has missed class for two weeks in a row. What is the ICA’s official policy around absences? Is it better to contact the student directly or to contact the student’s parents?

For each issue, we discuss the concern, think about the context of the issue, and consider possible ways to address it. We develop concrete next-steps for each problem and make sure to check in during the following weeks to determine whether any further steps are needed.

Our goal, in the partnership, is to support the education staff in their immediate work, as well as to build the team’s capacity for supporting their students’ social-emotional needs in the future. We supplement the meetings with phone calls and emails to address crisis situations, occasional trainings to develop skills that the staff would like to strengthen, and collaboration to build policies around supporting students. This work allows the education staff to focus on the mission of the ICA’s programming while also ensuring that they are meeting the needs of their students.

Have your staff faced issues that they are unsure how to address? Would a behavioral-health perspective be helpful in addressing your participants’ needs? If so, consulting with a social worker, counselor, or psychologist might be something to explore.

Melissa Rocklen is a clinical social worker and an artist. As a social worker, she has focused on working with students, families, and staff within the Boston Public School system. She has conducted individual and group therapy, taught lessons on social-emotional skill building, assisted people in accessing local resources, provided trainings for teachers, and built protocols for addressing student needs.