CLEARWATER – Carrie Boucher didn’t know what to expect the first time she set foot inside Pinellas County’s Juvenile Detention Center in Clearwater.
The Seminole resident brought her NOMADstudio, a traveling art bus that provides art supplies and lessons to underserved youth throughout the Tampa Bay region, to the facility May 1 as part of Good Moves: A Caravan of Sharing. She was joined by other mobile nonprofit organizations, including Bluebird Book Bus, Bess the Book Bus, Boards for Bros, Road to Artdom and Giving Tree Music.
While there, out of curiosity, Boucher began asking questions about the children’s daily routine at the detention center.
“What are they doing in school?” she asked. “What does their day look like? What kind of free-time activities do they do? Do they have time and space for a creative outlet?”
She learned that while Pinellas County Schools provides daily general education classes, students in the detention center aren’t offered special programs, such as visual arts, music or theater.
“We saw that gap, and our organization’s mission is about finding those gaps and filling those gaps,” Boucher said.
At the time, she didn’t realize that NOMAD would be the one to fill that gap, though. She thought the organization might simply serve as a conduit for bringing an art instructor to the facility. But four months later, on Sept. 6, she launched Justice Studio, a weekly after-school art program for children at the Juvenile Detention Center organized by NOMAD.
Though NOMAD was only at the detention center for a half hour during that initial May 1 visit, Boucher quickly recognized the impact that the offered arts programming had on the children incarcerated there.
She recalls one child, a boy around the age of 12, surveying the various activities offered by the visiting nonprofits, seemingly “paralyzed with choice.”
While staff at the JDC “are phenomenal and nurturing,” creating “an environment of care” and free of oppression, there are still strict rules and a routine, she said.
So, when this boy was presented with options for his free time, he kept repeating, “This is a miracle. This is a miracle,” Boucher said.
She added, “Just to have options to pick out a few books. Watch some (skateboarding) demonstrations by Boards for Bros. Participate in a drum circle. Do some print making. The thought that ‘this is a miracle,’ that ‘these things are here right now and I can participate in them’ is pretty powerful to me.”
Initially, only a handful of boys jumped into print making right away. Others were hesitant at first. But as more of them participated, she saw common themes throughout their work.
“As they started producing prints, most of them, many of them, were ‘RIP’ somebody or ‘Free Me,’ ‘Free somebody,’” Boucher said. “Many of them have parents who are incarcerated as well. So, ‘Free my Mom.’ Many of their prints were about mourning and the desire for liberation.”
JDC staff were excited to learn that NOMAD wanted to continue art programming at the facility. She spent several months working closely with them and NOMAD volunteer Kinsey Rodriguez, who is also an art therapist, to create the weekly program.
Not all of the children at the JDC have a committed a crime, Boucher added. But even if they did, “many are victims as well,” she said. “Many have trauma in their past. Knowing that, we realized they could probably use some creative outlet and we felt having an art therapist in there with us would be a good idea. … We kind of built the idea for the program around art being a healthy and therapeutic activity.”
She applied for a grant to fund the program, but wasn’t selected to receive it.
“We did not want that to stop the program from happening,” she said.
So, NOMAD launched the program anyway. An anonymous donor allowed them to get it off the ground, Boucher said, and through the website patreon.com, they have regular monthly donors. Funding remains a concern for the program, though.
“Our biggest need right now is funding,” she said. “Secondary to that is building out a network of creative support for participants to give them models of positive creative expression in free time outside the system.”
Down the road, this network will offer regular art meet-ups, most likely at the JDC’s probation offices.
The Justice Studio will meet at the JDC twice a week. One day will be instructional, the second day will be a less structured art club.
Initially, they’ll only meet with about half a dozen students as they grow the program.
“We’re really building it from scratch,” Boucher said.
These students will work together to create a mural “on the drab, buff walls” in the JDC’s courtyard common area, she said. JDC staff has been incredibly supportive, she added. They told Boucher “they’re totally cool with covering every wall in there with a mural.”
While she’s providing the participating teens with a template for the mural, they’ll really be the ones deciding on its content.
In addition to referencing books and magazines about mural and graffiti art, “we’re having a lot of conversations around content and what do we want to create in this environment that reflects them, who they are, what their values are, what their brilliance is, what their hopes are and what their strengths are,” Boucher said. “All of this will be driven by the kids.”
She added, “That, to me, is part of the power of the engagement, allowing them to say their piece, not censoring anything they could create. It’s theirs to build. We’re just here to help.”
Those interesting in supporting the Justice Studio can write checks to NOMADstudio, P.O. Box 782, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731.
Donations can also be made online at www.patreon.com/NOMADartbus