With Access Art kits containing basic supplies for making art at home, kids can use art to express their feelings and increase their social-emotional learning.
Photo from Access Art
With Access Art kits containing basic supplies for making art at home, kids can use art to express their feelings and increase their social-emotional learning. Photo from Access Art

Kids from low-income families will be able to color their world a little brighter this summer thanks to the arts organization Kids Create Change which, in partnership with Northwestern University and with help from the community, is providing free art materials and virtual art activities through an initiative called Access Art.   

While most children will escape the worst complications of COVID-19, many are suffering from the fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, compounded by the recent spectacle of racism and police brutality.

As art therapists, Evanston artists Melissa Raman Molitor and Angela Lyonsmith, founders of Kids Create Change, are aware of the healing potential of making art. Through in-school programs and art-making and story-crafting workshops, they aim to show that art can inspire change.

“[Art] offers young people an outlet for expressing feelings of disappointment, anxiety, fear, anger and loss, which are common in response to the outcomes of the pandemic,” Ms. Raman Molitor says. Art-making provides “an avenue for processing the stories they’re hearing, and the images they’re witnessing in the news. It also provides a way for them to engage in learning and conversations around race and equity.”

But children who lack crayons, markers or any basic supplies for making art at home cannot take advantage of “opportunities to engage in the arts to support their social-emotional development and capacity for resilience,” Ms. Lyonsmith says.

She and Ms. Raman Molitor met as colleagues while teaching in the art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Both are founding board members of the umbrella arts group EvanstonMade and are active in other arts organizations in Evanston and elsewhere. It was while they were working on Evanston Art Connects, with its goal of encouraging everyone to make art, that the two raised the issue of equity: Not everyone has art supplies. “Lack of access to materials is an inclusion issue that hasn’t had much attention,” Ms. Raman Molitor says. She and Ms. Lyonsmith responded by creating Access Art.

At the same time, School District 65 was reporting that many kids were unable to complete homework assignments during quarantine because they did not have school supplies. With seed money from Northwestern, the newly created Access Art put together and distributed 400 art kits through a District 65 school supply drive. By mid-June, they had given away 200 more, for a total of 600 kits.

Their goal is to distribute 1,500 by the end of June. Access Art is collecting gently used art supplies and to date, they have raised $3,026 toward the $15,000 they will need to make kits at about $15 apiece. They are partnering with Connections for the Homeless and Books and Breakfast and are cultivating what they term “meaningful relationships” like the one they have with Family Focus, which will allow them to meet specific needs.

Access Art is just one initiative of Kids Create Change. Since founding Kids Create Change three years ago, Ms. Raman Molitor and Ms. Lyonsmith have offered programs in schools and community spaces, engaging young people through art and storytelling. From the outset, they have focused on race and racism and now, with COVID-19, are confronting the most crucial issues gripping the country in 2020.

Empathy is at the heart of Kids Create Change programs. By telling stories and making art, kids learn to recognize their own feelings and connect with others’ experiences and emotions. As a result, they have greater respect for individuality and diversity and stronger bonds with their neighbors.    

In one such program, third-graders at Lincolnwood School drew self-portraits as a way to picture themselves in relation to others. Ms. Lyonsmith and Ms. Raman Molitor introduced the ABC’s of Social Change, the Empathy Alphabet they created as a teaching tool. Each letter corresponds with a different word, and together, they provide building blocks for language and concepts associated with social emotional development.

In response to COVID-19, Ms. Lyonsmith and Ms. Raman Molitor pivoted from their plans for live summer activities to creating Access Art and pulling together in just a month an extensive website, www.kidscreatechange.com, with myriad resources for parents and youth in quarantine.

Here, for free, is a collection of suggestions for making art at home, arranged by age group. For elementary kids, for example, there is a video called “The YoYoMo Show,” featuring Mo Willems doodling to the cello music of Yo Yo Ma. Middle and high school students might choose a video on drawing anime or mandala designs.

The site also has extensive, curated lists of stories and books to help parents and children of all colors address race and racism, inclusion and equity, vital social issues people have trouble talking about.

Ms. Raman Molitor says she grew up “as a woman of color in a white Midwestern town” and therefore wants “to share how art can change your world, starting with changing yourself.” She and Ms. Lyonsmith see their work of supporting children and families as steps on their own and others’ “journey in learning and growing as antiracists, allies, and seekers of equity and social justice.”