By Dave Ongie
As students around our area prepare to go back to school, several youngsters in Johnson City will benefit from the extra enrichment they received over the summer.
From STEM camps to the Bookmobile, a wide assortment of educational opportunities was available to students during summer vacation. And for those who attended summer school in June, an injection of the arts during a two-week camp put on by Art Transforms may have long-lasting benefits.
“It shows these children we care about them,” said Brian Mills, director of Art Transforms. “It gives them something they can take home and say, ‘I did this.’ It will follow them through life.”
Through a grant from Tennesseans For the Arts, Mills was able to give elementary-aged students the opportunity to participate in storytelling and sculpting classes in the afternoon after they received academic enrichment in the morning. The camp started as a one-day endeavor in 2013 that quickly expanded to a full week before extending to two weeks a couple years ago. Mills currently runs a pair of sessions during the summer in conjunction with the Johnson City School System’s summer school program.
Mills cited a few examples of how storytelling allowed students to talk through things that were bothering them and build a better connection with their peers. In addition to the satisfaction that comes along with completing a sculpture, Mills said working with clay also helps students build a bond with Brooke Velsor, an art teacher at Liberty Bell.
“Having that lasting connection and getting to see kids for four or more years in a row, it really is amazing to work with them and connect with them,” said Velsor, who offers instruction at the camp each year. “By the time I get them in middle school, I’ve already got a little bit of a connection. It definitely makes them feel a little more at-ease in the classroom setting.”
Mills said he would love to extend the Art Transforms project even further, provided he can acquire the funding to do so. He said the fact the program exists at all is a testament to Tennesseans For the Arts, an organization that funds over 800 grants across the state to enhance art education.
For those who buy specialty license plates supporting the arts, Mills’ program is a prime example of how the revenue raised from the sale of those plates enriches lives around the state. Last year over 70 percent of the money Tennesseans For the Arts used to fund its grants came from license plate revenue.
“Tennessee does a really good job of funding the arts through this program,” Mills said. “I would not be able to put these two camps on if I was not funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission, and they would not be able to give the money they do without the program.”
For the students who engaged in storytelling and sculpting in one of Mills’ camps this summer, that investment could pay dividends for years to come. Mills said getting interested in one activity could be enough to keep a child engaged in school, which will positively change their lives well into adulthood.
“It’s a ripple effect,” he said. “Throw a stone in the pond, and watch it ripple out.”