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At-risk kids look up to mentors like Kenard Jackson

He shows them art is worthwhile, college is achievable

Friday Jul 18, 2014

Kenard Jackson grew up with his own set of challenges, much like the kids who receive guidance from Clear Path Adolescent Treatment and Family Services Center in Gary.

Jackson, now a 43-year-old Gary resident majoring in Fine Arts at Indiana University Northwest, said that as a child, he created art as an escape for the circumstances of his life. He learned to take solace in putting pencil to paper as a way of venting his frustrations, of showcasing his talent, of staying away from the bad influences of his childhood.

He also remembers the positive impact of young men who came to his own school to provide mentorship. They helped him learn that his fondness for art was worthwhile. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this discovery kept him out of street gangs.

“They gave me self-worth,” Jackson said of his mentors. “Once people started recognizing me as someone who draws or paints, it lifted up my spirits. My confidence level grew tremendously.”

Now, as a member of the IU Northwest student group, Brother 2 Brother (B2B), which strives to provide young men of color with academic support, professional development, and positive role models, Jackson is now returning the favor to youth in his neighborhood.

Last summer, the Clear Path center approached fellow B2B member Johnny Lang about developing an art instruction module for the youngsters who are wards of the state and participating in Clear Path’s Day Reporting Program. The group decided to pursue this activity for the 2013-14 academic year. To support this community service, the group received a grant as part of a national black male engagement initiative sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Donor Advised Fund at Legacy Foundation.

Jackson connected with the Live Arts Studio in Gary, run by Desiree Simpson, Ed.D, an adjunct faculty member at IU Northwest and he and Lang co-crafted the six-week art program especially for the 25 to 40 children.

James Wallace, director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs at IU Northwest, said the “top down” model of B2B is one that provides benefits on many levels.

“B2B is all about mentoring to the next generation and strengthening the pipeline of education within the region and providing some positive examples for other young folks in the community,” Wallace said. “We are able to do all of those things through projects like this.”

As the youth worked on their mosaic designs on a recent Monday, Jackson spotted one young man sitting by himself. He engaged the youngster in conversation, and invited him to draw something in his personal sketchbook. Before long, the pair were fast friends, and Jackson was telling the boy about his own struggles as a child.

“There are a lot of kids out there that wish they had someone to talk to freely and not get judged by them,” Jackson said. “I told them I am not here to judge them. I am here to help you find your inner artist. This is a place where you can escape when you get angry or stressed out. You can always find a pencil and piece of paper and put all your anger, fears and stress on that paper. You’ll be amazed at the images you can generate.”

Simpson said the children were enthralled with Jackson’s portfolio.

“Kenard has an enormous connection with the youth,” Simpson said. “He has an ability to explain things in a way that has meaning and impact. . . Kenard explained what art did for him and how it kept him from getting into trouble because he maintained an interest in something.”

Todd McCain, executive director of Clear Path Adolescent Treatment and Family Services Center, said he is thrilled to have the B2B mentors participating in the program. He said that exposing the children to positive role models like Jackson have tremendous impact in a city where statistically, not many youth will go to college. McCain said the presence of the B2B mentors serves to remind the children that they, too, can go to college and achieve great things.

“The children see the young men who overcame the obstacles of their neighborhood,” McCain said.

It seems Jackson has quite a knack for helping others find their inner artist and use it in positive ways. He’s done so with kids and adults alike. As a veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2004, Jackson used art as well as music and poetry to cope and to help other soldiers do the same.

The experience at the Live Arts Studio has helped Jackson shape his own education at IU Northwest and even helped him gain a clearer vision of his own career path.

Jackson hopes to combine his love for art with his desire to continue helping kids. Once he gets his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, expected in 2015, he hopes to pursue the teaching avenue.

“I am seriously thinking about changing my career and going into teaching,” Jackson said.

Wallace pointed out that this is exactly what B2B aims to accomplish, providing experiences that enrich the lives of both the mentor and the mentee, while also boosting the community as a whole.

“With the program at Live Arts Studio, our students are getting the experience of sharing what they’ve learned from our arts program at IU Northwest while also directly influencing the lives of these kids by sharing the knowledge they’ve gained," he said. "By the same token, the children are getting some exposure to real college students and get an idea of what it is like to be in a collegiate atmosphere. This is a great example of the amount of good that can come from bringing a few resources together.”

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