BY JOSIE GERESZEK
What started out as a class assignment has become much more for Marissa Van Vleet as well as area kids.
The 22-year-old art education senior started volunteering at Churches United for the Homeless in September as part of Steve Grineski’s ED 310 class. The purpose was to participate in a non-traditional educational setting.
Though the class is over, she continues to volunteer at Churches United, running an art club for children that she started in October.
“I was exposed to the fact that there are kids that are homeless, which you don’t think about. You don’t think about that when you just are confronted with the fact that there are homeless people,” she said. “I had never really thought about it before.”
Van Vleet said she believes expression is important for kids in this situation as many don’t have the transportation needed to be in before or after school art programs.
“Once I was there, I noticed that a lot of them really have a love of art, and they really like to do these things,” she said. “They don’t have anything to do and they all share the same living space, so it gives them something to come out to and be in an open space. They’re still around other people, but it’s a little less crowded.”
They spend a couple of hours each Saturday morning working on a variety of projects from light graffiti to painting.
“Art provides a means for them to learn to communicate visually,” she said. “Art helps them relate to each other, it helps them express their ideas.”
Van Vleet said motivation has come easy when organizing the art club.
“Kids are inspiring,” she said. “When you hang out with them and realize how excited they are and some of the things they come up with and just the light in their eyes when they show you what they’re working on, that’s enough to make anyone continue to go just about anywhere.”
Van Vleet said she’s not alone in this aspect.
“I think it’s been received really well by people there,” she said. “And I think people really like the idea of kids’ artwork being up and around and the kids having something to do.”
As part of her class project, Van Vleet used time-lapsed footage of art she created and destroyed throughout a video she made discussing education and child homelessness.
“People will ask, ‘What’s it like working with homeless kids,’ ” she said in the video. “Well, it’s like working with kids.”
As part of her class project, Van Vleet researched policies to give homeless kids the same opportunities as other children.
She found an 1891 article from the Minneapolis Tribune that told the story of two young girls who were barred from public school after becoming wards of the state because they no longer had guardians living in the school district.
“I just looked at different laws that have been changing over time so that homeless students don’t get left out of those things,” Van Vleet said. “That’s how this all came about.”
In the video she talks about government programs to help homeless children and families and the importance of keeping those kids in school.
“School provides a backbone of consistency in a very tumultuous life,” she said in the video. “No matter what, a child has the right to be in a classroom.”
Van Vleet and her advisor Brad Bachmeier hope to turn the art club into a sustainable program in the future.
A couple of faculty are trying to look for grant programs for this project, as Marissa actually gave up work hours to start this program, Bachmeier said.
“We’d like to find funding for it because this isn’t my program,” Van Vleet said. “It should be Churches United’s program, and they should be able to have it continue once I leave.”
She said they are currently searching for a grant that can be invested into Churches United, so that each year someone like Van Vleet can be in charge of the art club’s funds and also get paid for their time. Another option is an endowment program through MSUM, having money exist within the school and a yearly sum of interest serving as a scholarship for the art club’s organizer.
Van Vleet is also considering starting an art or writing club for adults at the shelter.
“I’ve had some adults join us this past couple weeks. They just wanted to do the things we were doing, so I told them, ‘Sure, sit down.’”
Although it’s all still very up in the air, things are looking promising, Van Vleet said.
She said she feels fortunate things have worked out like they have.
“I think I picked the homeless shelter because it fit into my schedule the best. And so it’s all been kind of, not destiny, but it wasn’t like I just had this passion for homeless people because I didn’t before last semester,” she said. “There’s always, always somewhere to fill a need in your community. There are so many places that could use your talents to help people.”