Kids build coping and life skills during school-year art club
Jessica Juarez looks every bit the part of the artist that she is: She wears cool and colorful jewelry and eyeglass frames, styles her abundant hair in fearlessly, floats on old-school Chicago house music, and keeps paint, brushes and markers in her car at all times. But Jessica is also a social scientist: As a student supports manager for Communities In Schools of Chicago, Jessica provides intensive counseling to and intervention programs for elementary school students who need support to keep them in school and on track for grade promotion and the longer-term goal, high-school graduation.
Equipped with a master’s degree in youth development and pursuing a second master’s in clinical mental counseling, Jessica is based at Chavez Elementary Multicultural Academy, a Chicago public school located in the Back of the Yards community. There, she works with students who are grappling with adult-sized challenges manage them by using positive coping skills rather than destructive behaviors such as skipping school, harming themselves, fighting others or even using drugs. (Self-inflicted injuries among girls aged 10–14 have been rising since 2008, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.)
Some of the students Jessica counsels belong to Art Xpress, an in-school and after-school club Jessica created to help students use art to express their thoughts and feelings. This June, Art Xpress held a show to display the students’ independent projects that are the result of a school year of learning and utilizing positive coping skills. The show’s only goal, says Jessica, was to “trust the process, create, inspire and be inspired.”
The one-day show was held in a “gallery” at 48th Street and Hermitage Avenue, in an open, 1,500 square-foot retail space donated to the student club by a Chavez parent. About 100 pieces of art filled the room, including one large installation that students called “Wings”.
“It was a real art show, student-led,” says Jessica. “The students transformed the space, and they did everything the day of show.” Students greeted the parents and teachers who came, along Ald. Willie Cochran and throngs of students. “There were way more students than adults there,” says Jessica, who thinks the peer support was an important ingredient in the successful event.
“This was impactful because what we do is teach students how to cope with stuff, and they did it through art. The show is a representation of their stories without them having to talk about them (to other students). They learned so many coping skills to create their art, and to be able to share it with the world without having to say anything, was just the best.”
Paul Fagen, a CIS of Chicago field supervisor who works with Jessica, commended her on the event’s success, saying that “it speaks to the fact that the relationship she has with the students undergirds everything that Jessica does in working with them during the school year leading up to the art show,” building life skills, enrichment and career readiness skills. “It was a culmination of all of the work she did during the year and it mirrors all of her interests.”
Jessica’s colleagues also commend the show’s purpose and the students’ creativity. “I absolutely love the feather project,” says Bryan Heidel, another CIS of Chicago student supports manager who is based at Rowe Elementary School. “So amazing!”