Artist V.L. Cox wrapped work today at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander, where for a week she's worked with the kids detained there on a mural project. It was the second mural project there; the first, funded by UALR's Criminal Justice Center, was such a success with the kids that the state Department of Youth Services decided to do the second.
The center is for high-risk kids. The teen-agers who worked with Cox were those who'd earned the privilege with behavior and grades. A couple of boys I talked to there said they learned some things from Cox about painting — like the benefits of tape to demarcate a line — and that part of the reason they liked the program was that it brought some of the more "mature" kids together. They also praised the project for its organization, which gave structure to their day. Sometimes, the kids get rowdy waiting for something to start, one young man said.
During the first mural project, a group of boys who normally fought dropped the conflict once they started painting. "They were calmed and stayed focused — like meditation," Cox said, and the DYS and center personnel agreed. "I've never been treated with more respect," she said. She said she had her own rough times during childhood — she was raised by her grandmother: "I can relate."
Cox took some of her artwork to Alexander to show her painters — her screen doors and abstract work as well. She also took her high school yearbook to prove to them she was on the basketball team. It didn't feel like a detention center as the kids gathered around to look at the Arkadelphia High yearbook ("you all had color [photos] back then?" one teen-ager remarked). It felt like a normal gathering of kids. That's good.
The campus is one of just a few nationally with its own Boys and Girls Club, which offers music classes as well. Adam Baldwin with DYS, noting the high-risk population, said the programming was just what the kids needed and DYS hoped to do more with Cox and the Dream Big Project of the Thea Foundation.