I remember doing art projects as a kid.  They were always a blast and I always seemed to have a knack for them turning out pretty good.  Whether it was paint, pencil, crayon or even clay, I loved to mold whatever it was into something interesting.  Regrettably, I didn’t understand that creating was my calling until after I graduated with a business degree, but however I found it, I found it and I couldn’t love what I do any more.  I also love to create with my 8 year old daughter Madison, who is on her way to a brilliant career as an artist, writer, actress, athlete or whatever else she decides to do in life.

When the opportunity to participate in Art Buddies came along, I jumped at the chance.  I thought to myself, how great that I could go back to my childhood a little bit and share an experience with someone who would appreciate it along with me.

What is Art Buddies?

Art Buddies helps kids from low-income families discover their creative gifts while building confidence and big dreams. We pair each child with a special creative volunteer: a mentor from the exciting fields of advertising, design and architecture.  Together, the mentor and their buddy will create a costume that is tied to a theme that changes from session to session.

Not quite what I thought

When the first day came I was told that my buddy was from the special education class. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. He seemed a bit shy, but with my big personality in both size (6’4”) and energy, I figured I would win him over in no time.  Not the case.  He wouldn’t make eye contact, and didn’t seem to be registering what I was saying.  I made probably 10 frantic trips to the hot glue gun station that day to avoid disaster.  By the end of the first session, I was both physically and emotionally exhausted.

Our Initial Sketch

I didn’t think I could do it again and I remember walking up to the leader of the session, explaining my hopelessness around the situation.  I then found out that my buddy has Autism Spectrum Disorder.  I didn’t know exactly what that meant and was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to handle it, but before quitting, I wanted to give it a night’s sleep. When I woke up, I decided I was going to see it to the end and that I wanted to learn more from Art Buddies, as well as learn more about Autism.

Improvement

Over the next few sessions, I started to see some progress in a few areas.  We certainly weren’t best friends and having long conversations, but I could see the excitement on my buddy’s face every time he walked in the door and saw that I was there.  This motivated me to no end and on top of that, our costume was starting to take shape.  I was able to introduce my buddy to some of the things that we do in our process of creating websites (Concepting, sketches, mood boards, etc..), which lent itself nicely to creating a brand around this costume.  Admittedly, my buddy probably didn’t internalize many of those things, but I had decided that if anything, he was going to get the best costume that has EVER been created.

The Pay-off

We’d been making great progress on our costume and that costume became my buddy’s “comfort zone”.  Anytime we tried it on, he’d start to parade around the room and it was amazing to see the transformation that would happen.  Then came the day we were going to show it off to the rest of the group.  Being unsure what was going to happen, we went up in front of the group and I started to describe the costume.  Almost immediately he started to dance in front of the entire group.  It was totally unexpected and the group laughed along as I took a back seat to the real show.

My Buddy, the "Super Space Spider"

What I didn’t know was the lasting impact I seemingly made on my buddy.  A couple weeks after the session ended I was forwarded the following email. (The name of my buddy has been changed to protect his anonymity.)

“Andy is a child from a low-income family in south Minneapolis.  He is 8 years old, and has Autism Spectrum Disorder.  

At school, Andy avoided other kids, was very hesitant, didn’t want to engage with people.  He was unable to walk to classes by himself, and had to be escorted through the halls by a school staffer.  

In the fall of 2011, Andy enrolled in Art Buddies, an after-school program for low-income kids.  Andy paired up with his new Art Buddy Eric, a creative director at a web design firm.  

When he met Eric on the first day, Andy was out of control.  He couldn’t focus, ran around, couldn’t meet Eric’s eyes, wouldn’t listen to directions, kept obsessing over the glue guns instead of working on his project.  Eric wasn’t sure he could handle that boy! 

But Eric came back the next week, and patiently kept trying.  Gradually, as the two of them worked together, Andy started to change.  He got so excited about Art Buddies, he discovered he could walk there by himself — the first time he’d ever been able to walk the halls unescorted.  

He got so interested in his costume, he was able to focus.  He was so proud of what he’d created, he loved putting on his costume and showing it off.  

When he saw kids in school who were also in Art Buddies, Andy started engaging with them. By the end of the program, he had new confidence in himself.  Now he could walk to ALL his classes alone.  He had a new sense of belonging to the whole school community.  He talks to other students now, and has even developed a few friendships. 

The Behavior Specialist told us Art Buddies made a huge, positive difference in Andy’s life.”


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