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Every year on the third weekend in May something unique happens in Evanston. Thousands of community members including parents, grandparents, teachers, school administrators, business-owners, neighbors and friends gather outdoors at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Dempster Street to celebrate and view the diverse artistic talents of Evanston’s youth.

The Young Evanston Arts Festival (YEA!) is the most comprehensive children’s art event in the City of Evanston and touches every sector of the community. This year the full-day event on May 15 will display visual artwork from more than 1,000 students from 40 public, parochial and private Evanston schools. Over 400 students will participate in performing arts by singing, playing instruments or dancing. Participants range in age from preschool through 12th grade.

The non-competitive and non-commercial festival invigorates art programs at many Evanston schools throughout the year and serves as a culminating arts event. To encourage students to express themselves freely, there is no competition and no artwork is for sale.

“Evanston has so many wonderful events for adults to showcase their work,” says Susan Larson, director of fundraising. “YEA! Festival is an opportunity to affirm the children.”

“Our hope each year is to provide a formative experience for Evanston children, one that will influence their lives into the future,” says Harvey Pranian, project director and founder of YEA!

One Man Decides to Give Back

The first annual Yea! Festival, now often referred to as Yea! Day, was held in 1987 when Mr. Pranian – owner of Harvey Arts and Antiques in Evanston – decided to give back to the community where he lived, worked and raised his children.

Mr. Pranian knew he wanted to involve children and their artwork, but had no idea how well-received the idea would be. He gathered other business-owners from the Chicago/Dempster area where Mr. Pranian had his own shop, and got the green light. He set up a meeting with the District 65 art teachers to collaborate on a one-day exhibit that would include art from Evanston school children. The response was overwhelming and the seeds were planted for what has become a true Evanston tradition.

The first years were a struggle, however, and required hundreds of hours of phone calls, letters and meetings to muster up support and volunteers, recalls Mr. Pranian. But things eventually came together.

“We’ve been blessed with near-perfect weather,” says Mr. Pranian. In 22 years the event was rained out only once; Yea! Day was held inside at Chiaravalle Montessori School on Hinman and Dempster.

Within four years, it was decided to celebrate the performing arts as well as the visual arts, and a stage was added to the venue. The City provided Yea! with a well worn stage that resembled an old hay wagon. It held up well for years, but now a secure stage will serve the needs of an expanding performing arts program.

More recently, a silent auction was added to Yea! Day that helps fund the event and promote Evanston businesses.

A Renewed Vision

Lois Roewade, director of media relations, says the steering committee wanted to take Yea! to a new level.

“Harvey recognized the event was perhaps getting a little dormant and wanted new enthusiasm,” says Ms. Roewade. “So he brought on a number of new board members and we asked ourselves what else can we do with this.”

One answer came in the form of a scholarship fund. On May 4, the first-ever YEA! fundraising event was held at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., to benefit the newly formed scholarship fund. The Benefit was supported by Whole Foods, S.P.A.C.E., School of Rock Music and Autobarn.

“The scholarship will go to a child that shows an exceptional talent in any area of the arts,” says Mr. Pranian. “It could be photography, poetry, dance, computer art – you name it.”

Ms. Larson, who joined the board this year and has a background in fundraising and development, says she wanted to take advantage of all the wonderful exposure the event receives.

“To be able to provide a scholarship opportunity and expand Yea!’s influence beyond just Yea! Day we needed to solicit corporate sponsors,” says Ms. Larson. “Autobarn is Yea! Day’s title sponsor this year.”

Looking Toward a Bright Future

“We want to make sure that people realize Yea! is not just a one-day event,” adds Mr. Pranian. “The festival influences local art programs throughout the year and now the scholarship fund will expand on that.”

Mr. Pranian says he is looking forward to this year’s festival.

“It’s a lot of work, but amazingly inspiring,” says Mr. Pranian. “There’s nothing better than watching a child stand in front of his artwork beaming, or performing on stage in front of family and friends.”