Building a Better Life"What's really special is it's engaging the community, particularly youth, in the rebuilding of their own neighborhoods."
For 26 years, the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia has offered youths the tools to enhance not only their lives, but their surroundings.
The nonprofit organization, encompassing three blocks in an economically challenged yet close-knit section of the city, offers free after-school programs for kids ages 9 to 19. Among the options: clay arts, fashion design, video production, jewelry design, painting, graphic arts, hip-hop and photography.
About 350 kids annually attend the classes. They also help transform vacant lands into parks and gardens on the campus. The sites feature giant, colorful mosaics and murals depicting mythological creatures, flowers and angels. The gardens boast vegetables, herbs and flowers.
"What makes us world renowned isn't our after-school arts program — that's something that fortunately a lot of people do," says Elizabeth Grimaldi, executive director of the Village. "What's really special is it's engaging the community, particularly youth, in the rebuilding of their own neighborhoods."
That sentiment is in keeping with the vision of the Village's founding artist, Lily Yeh, who sought to connect kids with the arts in productive ways.
New programs include an arts and culture magazine called Cred, offered through a graphic arts class, as well as an urban garden in which students grow flowers that a local florist, Falls Flowers in East Falls, will sell in "urban bouquets." The partnership is similar to the Village's arrangement with John & Kira's, a local chocolatier. The kids tend an herb garden where mint, chilies and lavender are grown to be used in the chocolatier's products.
It's part of teaching entrepreneurship, says Grimaldi. "That's what we mean when we say we transform blighted lands into community assets. It's something that becomes a learning experience, or beneficial to someone, or a job."
In addition to its own initiatives, the Village's space is used by outside partners for programs, including the Spells Writing Lab, Parent University and a Free Library Hot Spot, which offers computer classes.
K-Fai Steele, a computer assistant at the Hot Spot, helps teenagers and adults — most of whom do not own computers — learn to use the Internet, particularly to find jobs. When deciding to work here, Steele, an artist, was inspired by the center's unique setting. "It seemed like a very special place, once I saw all the mosaics and sculptures," she says. "It seemed a lot more interesting to me than your standard office."
The Village also hosts festivals and events, which are attended by about 5,000 people annually. But don't expect any arrows pointing to the Village.
"We don't have any signs. On one hand, it's great to have visitors, but on the other hand, we don't want to separate or to name our park," Grimaldi says. "We want everyone to feel like it's their park. … So it's kind of like a secret garden where people really do stumble upon it and it opens up and then it keeps going and going."
The need for volunteers is "huge," says Grimaldi. "The Village is a community run by the community. By community we mean everyone, not just the people who live within 10 minutes. We wouldn't have been able to build 12 parks without the help and support of all the volunteers that come here and mentor kids or share their expertise or work in the parks and gardens."