By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager
The day is unapologetically sunny, a gorgeous early summer vibrancy tamed by the canopy of trees lining Southern Methodist University’s Bishop Boulevard. There is brightness here; a glowing hue that charts a path like a lighthouse illuminates the way back for a wayward ship.
Alonzo C., an 18-year-old student of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, sits on a couch lining the Owen Arts Center’s second floor. Below him are the Bob Hope and Margo Jones Theatres. This is Alonzo’s fourth year in the Creative Solutions summer program at SMU’s Algur H. Meadows School of the Arts, a seven-week, arts-driven series of sessions that ends in a culminating performance July 28 and 29.
Like most of the 12,000 students embraced by Creative Solutions since the program’s inception in 1994, Alonzo found his way back after being convicted of a crime and experiencing probation.
“When I first started it was 2013, I used to be quiet and shy,” says Alonzo. “Each year helped me become more and more talkative. It made me feel like people actually do care for you. They want to help you overcome what you are going through, and they never judged me.”
Alonzo found his muse for singing, dancing and performing arts through Creative Solutions. He found his confidence. He found his empowerment. Alonzo now has a job, he stays out of trouble, and he can see a future.
“I learned that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” he says. “Creative Solutions helped me to not go back. I’m not a bad kid, but I know that without this I would probably go back. But I am serious now.”
Creative Solutions has come a long way in its 22-year existence. Back when Big Thought’s Lisa Schmidt founded the program, working closely with probation officers and the Dallas County Juvenile Department, it was all very “intuitive,” she says. “We felt it would work. We did not know the science behind it. Now with all this data, we are able to use it to redesign our programs to make them more effective and more scientifically based. They are now data driven.”
The Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) analysis of the past two Creative Solutions summers revealed that 41 percent of youth increased their social skills by more than 5 percent, which is considered statistically significant. Also, 40 percent of youth decreased their problem behaviors score by more than 5 percent, also statistically significant.
At the heart of that social-emotional learning is Big Thought’s Program Specialist Allison Caldwell, who in 2011 became Projects Director with Creative Solutions. Caldwell, who works day in and day out with the CS students, feels deep-rooted, emotional compassion for these kids whose lives have been anything but idyllic. These are kids stuck in a potentially widening opportunity gap.
Caldwell counts on the character-building work of Creative Solutions teaching artists Alejandro Perez, Jr. and Menkiti Rice, both instrumentally involved in the CS summer program at SMU, to take these kids through a psychologically fortifying two months.
“Everybody starts in a different place and leaves in a different place,” says Caldwell. “Some kids come in more wounded than others and have more work to do. They all leave taller, more confident at connecting with others because they can’t make it through the program without improving.”
Making it through, using that beacon to find your way to a safer, more fulfilled place, remains the goal. “For many kids this may be the first thing in their lives they actually finish,” says Caldwell. “That public embrace at the end is new for them. To be seen, heard, validated and not shamed is very empowering.”
How do those seven weeks go by? With singing, dancing, playing drums on water jugs and Home Depot buckets, writing poetry, doing calisthenics, chanting motivating mantras, making mosaic art pieces, sitting at the pottery wheel, working on your eye contact and posture, learning to shake hands with adults and mentors, finding the right words to express yourself, taking the time to solve conflict, being open-minded, seeing conflicts from other perspectives. It’s all about self-exploration, connecting with others through empathy, communication and collaboration, and self-regulation.
“Don’t just do something, stand there,” says Caldwell. “We teach them to take a pause before they react. If you have been through trauma it is harder to control your emotions. That’s because they are inherent survival instincts.”
Surviving morphs into prospering and the evolution begins. Sixteen-year-old David O. is back for a second year of Creative Solutions at SMU. His specialty is acting and creative writing, so that culminating performance at the end of July is paramount. He’s grown confident with singing and creative writing. He also has a summer job now that nourishes him with healthy responsibilities.
“I like this,” says David about Creative Solutions. “I wanted to see how it would be the second year; see if it was the same. I want to be part of that performance again. It’s important that I be there. If I’m not there I’m not doing my part and everybody else suffers. If I’m there I help out and we make the play a whole lot better.”
That’s the spirit of the Creative Solutions family. These kids start as strangers verbally opposed to each other and end as friends united by the will to bond. “It really becomes this tight knit group of support,” says Caldwell. “Kids you never thought would work together are in a room working toward a common goal. There is always intolerance at the beginning and then it turns into acceptance.”
Alonzo is living proof. The loner walked in never expecting to connect, only to walk out with a new set of friends. “They opened up to me so I opened up to them,” he says. “They changed my plans.”
“We have seven weeks to trust each other like a family,” says Alonzo. “You feel pride and accomplishment about that performance. They make it easy for us to do that performance because they make the environment safe.”
And the lighthouse illuminates another path.
Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.