“No turning back from my destiny or greatness. I’ve gone this far so I’ m sure that I’ll make it.”
So it is written across a 25-foot-long mural in Family Court in Georgetown, as the court room is visually surrounded by a colorful road traveled by many in foster care – one that is sometimes bumpy and confusing, but now filled with an artistic reminder that their past doesn’t dictate their future and, while there may be slippery roads ahead, there is a beacon of light at the end of it all.
“This mural means a lot to me. It has most of my life in it. It has everybody’s life in it. Just to get together and do this, and put what’s happened to us into artistry, it affects me a lot,” said Robert H., one of the many current and former foster youth involved in the mural’s creation.
“It gave me a chance to express myself and work toward something positive,” added Maegan S. of the work that tells their story, gives others coming after them guidance and ends with one great word: hope.
What started as a conversation between Kim Klabe of the Rehoboth Art League – who was herself a foster kid when she was young – and Judge Peter Jones, a Family Court associate judge, merged into an art project headed by local artist John Donato, with help from youth from the Delaware Youth Advisory Council, or YAC, a youth-run organization sponsored by the Delaware Division of Family Services.
The mural recently became a reality in the form of the six-canvas, 25-foot-long mural of whimsical tales of life transitioning out of foster care.
‘Slippery Road Ahead’
Delaware’s Youth Advisory Council is composed of current and former foster care youth, and their mission is “to provide a safe and respectful forum for youth to share ideas, opinions, concerns and develop leadership skills by planning and facilitating activities that enhance the foster-care system, independent living program and community.”
Several of the youths recently spent their spring break creating the mural with Donato, using the Rehoboth Art League’s Children Studio as their workspace.
“I thought for years of how to make this a better space for kids,” said Jones of the tan-walled courtroom. He said that, after he talked with the Klabe and their meeting and figuring out logistics, the mural idea began to take shape.
“I drove over three of the days they were working on it, and the first day it was just a blank canvas. [Donato] had six different easels, and the kids did most of the artwork. The pride these kids have taken is really neat,” Jones said.
He said the stories of some of the youth in foster care are enough to make anyone cry, but one of the biggest hurdles they have is what they are going to do when they “age out” of the system.
“When they turn 18, they are lucky if they graduate high school, but that’s it. There is help through Independent Living until they are 21 – they assist them in finding housing, or assist them with applying for a scholarship, but they don’t provide it,” he noted.
‘Don’t let your past dictate your future.’
Jones said a major improvement in the court system in recent years has been the realization that there needs to be more of an effort put into how to better prepare teenagers on how to become adults.
“YAC has had a lot of contact with the General Assembly,” he noted of the group’s work on such hurdles for foster youth. “For instance, when you are 16 and you go to get a license, you need a parent or guardian to sign for you and if you don’t have that… and then who is going to pay for insurance?”
He also said they have “permanency hearings” at one year after a child has been placed in foster care, to see if the child’s parent has completed all things necessary to gain custody of the child back or if other arrangements will need to be made, which he said helps prevent the foster youths from being in limbo for years at a time.
“In spite of everything they have been through,” said Jones, “they have such positive ideas about what they are going to achieve. To hear them talk, they know the importance of education, they are much more savvy [than their peers].”
And that “savvy” came to life in both the words and the illustrations in the mural, which Jones said he hopes is around for a long time – something that could be the case, as it can easily be unscrewed from the wall and moved should the courthouse ever grow or otherwise need renovations.
“It’s a great visual of ‘Here’s where you are and here is where you want to end up,’” said Klabe. “It’s amazing what they did in a week. And it will be there for years to come, to affect other kids, even if they just look at it and start smiling.”
“We created a lifelong memory” agreed Tamyra B. and Christella S. They said one of the best parts of the project was “making YAC’s vision a success.”
Klabe explained that the Rehoboth Art League was fortunate enough to receive a grant for specialized outreach projects, such as this one, from the Norman A. Lockwood Foundation.
Laura Pepper of YAC said that even more than the confidence and the skills the youth learned, they learned to be teachers, as well.
“Most importantly, I know that I, for one, and also the other adults involved in the project, learn and gain so much more from the youth [than they do from us]. They inspire me every day to keep doing what I’m doing and that, even though it may seem small, I am making a difference.”
Donato echoed that sentiment, saying that the confidence and the leadership skills grew each day for the youth involved in the project.
“Some were writers, so they mapped out each day what they were going to do. We have one that did a rap, and it is all across the top in the clouds. It is not just painting. You yourself are transformed with something like this. Art is just the catalyst.”
Myiesha M. agreed, saying, “The experience was a life-changer!”
“And they came up with great things, ideas to highlight along the path like trust, how to ask for help, making good decisions,” continued Donato. “And they were having fun the whole time they were doing it.”
He pointed out that one of the youngest children involved in the project – just 8 years old – said one of the things they need to do is “persevere,” a word that is present in the artwork as a message right in the top of the center section of the mural.
“That [word] came out of him!” said Donato. “I didn’t give it to him.”
He said he had a core group of about eight youth who came every day and, when new youth came, they would take the reins and interview them, to get a feel for where they were in their life and what they would want to contribute to the mural and its message, and would mentor them on getting started.
Which, one can surmise, is exactly what the signature line on the finished mural was intended to convey, as it reads, “by John Donato and the next generation of leaders.”