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Art League Creates Different Perspective on Life

SOHO project raises self-esteem and wins awards.

La Shawn Bailey never made anything of her own until she signed up for the SOHO (A Space of Her Own) program at The Art League earlier this year. Since then, she has made a customized storage chest, a lamp, floor cloth, footstool and chair.

"My favorite is my chair — I painted it and added a backboard to it and then put my name on it," said Bailey, who now has all those pieces in her home.

Bailey can thank The Art League and Alexandria Court Service Unit; they are the two agencies that came up with this collaboration.

"I had been brainstorming for years what to do with these girls [juvenile offenders and at-risk] to get them to show up for something," said Linda Odell, coordinator of the Alexandria Court Service Unit. "An unusual portion of these girls are very artistic and I wanted to do something with art."

Odell finally found someone at the Art League to work with her and began the program two years ago with Alice Merrill, director of development for The Art League.

"It's been a wonderful relationship working with the Alexandria court services," Merrill said. "You don't have to be rich to have beautiful homes. It's a wonderful elixir of the creative process consigned with interpersonal skills."

SOHO, AN ART- and service-based program in home improvement and relationship building for girls, is funded by a grant from the Alexandria Youth Services Program Fund. The project is based loosely on the TLC television program, Trading Spaces, and brings low-income teen and pre-teen girls together, who are paired with volunteer adult women mentors. "Working with their mentors, the girls identify needs in each other's (girls) bedrooms or personal home spaces; receive training from professional artists/designers at The Art League in art techniques. These include: drawing, painting, elements of design, faux finishing, collage, decoupage, and floor cloths; they also work creatively with a small budget and inexpensive resources on how to plan for home improvements," Merrill said.

Merrill said that the girls and mentors met twice weekly after school for 15 weeks beginning in early March and on weekends for the room renovations. At the beginning of the project, each girl was given a sketchbook and pencil/pen for keeping her design concepts, ideas, and comments. The girls and mentors were also given wooden boxes, which were redesigned into "Dreamchests" for storing art projects and personal memorabilia.

The girls worked in teams to remodel each girl's bedroom or personal space. They used creative design techniques to meet individual needs of participants by enhancing the overall aesthetics, design or traffic flow of a room. Goals were to increase privacy; use lighting techniques to improve mood; maximize the use of space; and foster clutter control.

Merrill said that a special art project this year was spearheaded by instructor Steve Prince. He helped participants redesign donated plain oak chairs into personalized and colorful "thrones." The art projects were incorporated into the bedroom designs and were taken home after a reception exhibition of participants' works, which was held in June at The Art League.

BAILEY'S MENTOR was Alexa Thomas; a woman who worked for non-profits before she switched into the corporate world. She heard about the program from a friend and realized that it would accomplish her goal of getting back into working with girls who needed help.

"The programs they put together are amazing. It was more than I expected and I enjoy doing it," Thomas said. "It's worked out really well; I wish more people knew about it."

In addition to wanting people to know about it because it's a great program, Thomas also knows the ongoing need for new mentors. Thomas will not be a mentor next year; instead she will continue to communicate with Bailey and help her with issues.

"I keep in touch with her and let her know that things will get better as she gets older," Thomas said.

As a result of Thomas' visits to the Bailey home, she has gotten to know the rest of the family and has worked with Bailey's siblings as well.

"She got my sister into camp," Bailey said. "She [Alexa] is very nice."

Bailey said that SOHO "is a good place to me" and found that one of the added advantages was the good food that Merrill brought every week. She also found that the conflicts she had with a couple of the girls before she started the program were resolved as they worked together.

"I could see a change in LaShawn after the program," Thomas said. "She gave her mother the footstool that she made and that was a good thing."

SOHO ended their second year on a high note when they received a "Eureka!" award presented by INOVA Alexandria Hospital and the Alexandria United Way. The "Eureka!" Award recognizes nonprofits that have found a new way of doing business. It is awarded for the best example of creative programming representing the spirit of "Eureka!" from the Greek word meaning "I found it."