HALO Center harnesses the creative power of kids
BY LAURA BAUER, The Kansas City Star
Minutes before the class was about to begin in a basement room of a Kansas City homeless shelter, a bubbly 8-year-old burst in.“What we doing tonight?” David asked Miss Brooke, also known as Brooke Perry, a volunteer for the HALO (Helping Art Liberate Orphans) center. She knows David, a talkative boy who comes back Monday night after Monday night for an hour of expression and art.
“We’re making superhero capes,” she told him, barely getting out the last word before he grabbed a roll of fabric and covered his head with it. He’s Shadowman. No, wait, Spider-Man. Or Batman. The choices are endless.
And that’s the point. When David and the others come to these art therapy workshops conducted by Kansas City’s HALO Learning Center, volunteers such as Perry want them to express themselves and be who they are among people who care about them and learn life skill lessons about everything from self-discipline and accountability to compassion and confidence.
It’s the type of nonprofit Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, had in mind several months ago when she threw down her challenge to the community.
In the days following the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., many in the Kansas City area wanted to help in some way. That’s when Sailer suggested that families reach out and help agencies that serve children here as a way to honor those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary. People could volunteer their time, send donations or supplies, or spend one-on-one time with the children.
“Whatever we can do to make sure these kids feel they’re worth something, we should do,” said Sailer, referring to HALO, which works with people ages 5 to 20. “Anything we can do to show them someone cares.”
A nonprofit initially created in 2005 to fund orphanages in other countries, HALO’s headquarters are in Kansas City. Six years ago, volunteers and mentors branched out and started helping local youths, filling in with programs other agencies didn’t provide.
And whether it’s working with kids in Uganda, Kenya or here in the metro, the goal is the same: Empower youths in the greatest need to become contributing members of their communities.
The tool for communicating, for connecting to young people, is art. Something that the foundation’s founder discovered years ago in Honduras reaches all children, no matter their story.
“Even here (in Kansas City), there are things kids are holding in,” said HALO founder Rebecca Welsh. “Art gets them to express themselves.”
Last Monday night, Perry, volunteer Grace Philipp and HALO center director Carly Manijak worked with more than a dozen kids, ages 5 to 10, as they turned plain fabric into colorful capes. Before they started creating, each kid rattled off what superpower they wished they could have. Wish lists carried everything from the power to confuse people to flying and climbing buildings to stopping someone from trying to hit them.
Inside the art room at reStart, an interfaith ministry with homeless people where bright colors of blue and purple cover the walls, some children worked fast and furious. Others, the more quiet and reserved ones, took every minute they were given to draw elaborate pictures.
“I want to fly,” said Makayla, 6, shyly. She continued to keep her head down and eyes focused on her lavender cape, where she had drawn purple hearts and a green star and had started to cut out lime green flowers.
Outside these walls, their parents and guardians are dealing with real-life problems. Bills they struggle to pay, jobs they can’t find, or the home or apartment they can’t yet afford. Sometimes that pressure can trickle down to the children.
That’s why it can be so important to reach them, even if it’s just for an hour. That’s enough time, volunteers say, to let them know someone is there to listen and guide them if needed. It gives them somewhere they can go now or in the future. And it’s always a chance to create.
“We want them to leave with something they feel proud of,” said Manijak, who considers it a good night if the kids like the project, stay energized the entire time and are eager to show off their finished products. “We want to get them thinking about their future. Get them thinking positively.”
When Welsh tells the story about HALO’s creation, her voice elevates as she talks, and she admits she’s still amazed about how it all came to be.
About a decade ago, Welsh — who is originally from Jefferson City and now lives in Kansas City — was teaching at a martial arts school in Lee’s Summit that she and a friend opened. Trained in the sport and a believer in the discipline it teaches, Welsh would often tell students at the school about children she had met and helped in Honduras when she was a volunteer there a couple of years before.
She talked about seeing toddlers dig through the trash for food, watching 6-year-olds beg for water in the streets and noticing countless children with no home, no mom or dad. They were the same stories she had told adults many times before.
“And the adults were always like, ‘Oh, Rebecca, you’re so cute, you’re going to save the world,’” Welsh said. “But it was the kids, they were so interested. They were like, ‘Wait a minute, what? They don’t have parents?’”
Moved by the stories, kids at the martial arts school raised $5,000 in 2004 to help orphans in Mexico.
The next year they wanted to raise money again, this time raking in $40,000. At that time, Welsh remembers thinking: “OK, maybe this can be something more.”
Soon came the creation of the HALO Foundation, which now funds 11 orphanages in five countries. The initial focus was the orphanages, now in Nicaragua, Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and India.
But as Welsh and others formed relationships with Kansas City organizations dedicated to helping young people, the foundation started providing art therapy and educational workshops for at-risk and foster children in the Kansas City area.
The goal, Welsh said, was to fill in the gaps, provide what other agencies couldn’t.
“We’d go in and ask, ‘Where are their holes?’” Welsh said. “A lot of agencies are underfunded. They have no art program, no future-focused programming. That’s where we fit in.”
And she got the opportunity to explain to more people what art can do. She had learned that in Honduras when she would work with children who basically would be dropped off at the orphanage without any explanation or story of what they had gone through. Welsh would try to engage the children with a ball or another game. Some joined in. Others didn’t seem interested.
One girl stayed in the corner, rocking herself for comfort.
Nothing worked with her. Not until the day Welsh brought paper and some paints.
“That day, the little girl sat next to me,” Welsh said. “By the end of the week, every child was sitting around the table painting.”
And they were beginning to tell their stories.
Volunteers even see young people closed down here in Kansas City. Take Kellie, a teenager living at a local emergency shelter.
His first workshop, he barely spoke. Just like usual, everyone went around the room, said their name and then something positive.
“With coaxing, he told us his name,” said Aubony Chalfant, HALO center facilitator. But then he said nothing.
Same thing the next week. He just kept to himself.
Little by little he’d say more. To the point that when he moved into transitional housing, he was laughing and talking with the group. And earlier this summer, when HALO held a DJ workshop, he was up singing karaoke.
“He had the most beautiful voice,” Chalfant said. “He went from this kid who would barely tell us his name to talking all the time and even singing.”
The DJ who conducted the workshop was so taken with Kellie and his skills that he offered him a job helping him set up at different events.
Volunteers and staff have worked with other teens filling out job applications, working on interview questions and even serving as references.
“We really focus on what are these kids’ dreams, their passions and talent,” Manijak said. “And then we provide them with resources they need to take those talents back into the community. … If circumstances are where we don’t get to see them again, we’ve at least got them to thinking about their futures.”
For the first five minutes of each Wednesday night workshop with teens, Chalfant has them draw, doodle or write down what’s on their minds. Then one by one they can offer something positive.
Caleb, a teen who had been living on the streets and now is staying at the reStart emergency shelter, was one of the first to speak up one night.
“My birthday is in 11 days,” he said. “I’ll be 18.”
He’s not done sharing.
“You want me to read my poem?” he asked Chalfant. “It’s not happy.”
She gives the go-ahead. He read:
A gun heard
no more blood to bleed
A few applauded the work.
“Caleb, that’s awesome,” Chalfant told him. “That’s amazing you shared that.”
By the end of the night, after team-building exercises — including a water balloon toss where teens ended up pummeling each other in fun — the group was relaxed and looked forward to next Wednesday.
Caleb talked privately about trying to get back into high school.
“I think that they get that HALO is a safe place where you can share things and people won’t judge you,” Chalfant said. “We’re creating that safe environment to let your voice be heard and let you create whatever you want to create.”
Monday night, one elementary school boy wanted a plain white superhero cape. He grabbed a couple of markers. Sideways, he wrote a few capital letters and then in another space three numbers: 911. He wrote the numbers out again.
When asked what it all meant, he shook his head: “I’m not telling nobody. I don’t want anybody to know.”
A girl one table over wanted her superpower to be math skills. So on her cape she wrote addition problems. Eight plus eight. Sixteen plus 16. And another boy made a Batman cape of red, white and blue fabric.
David’s cape, which in a superhero world he would use to make people disappear, was done early so he could walk around the room showing it off.
“Do we get to keep these?” David asked Manijak.
“Yeah,” she told him. “You guys get to wear them so you feel confident and awesome.”
The life skill that volunteers stressed in August was confidence. This month it will be integrity, which volunteers agree is a little tricky to teach and relate to children and teens. Other months focus on goal setting, time management, leadership and respect.
Some months’ life skills are definitely harder than others to explain to young kids, Perry said.
“Confidence has been good, they all get it,” she said.
By 7:30, markers were strewn across the tables, scissors scattered everywhere. One boy worked to meticulously fold a Chiefs cape he made for his uncle who loves the football team.
No doubt the two volunteers and Manijak were beat.
“It’s not usually like this,” Perry said with a slight smile on her face, referencing the number of kids who showed up. Two families were even turned away because the class was so full.
“Some of the best times are when just two or three kids show up and we just hang out with them,” said Philipp.
But the three go home knowing the kids had fun, that they were energized the whole time and were proud of what they had created. You could see it as parents and siblings came to pick up the kids. They hollered, “Look what I made,” or proudly declared that they’re a superhero.
Out the door zoomed a boy who wants superspeed, a little girl who wants to fly, a boy who wants to make other people disappear and a boy who wants the power to make all the girls like him.
As Manijak would classify it, definitely a good night.
Sister Berta’s challenge
The idea came from Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough: Honor the memory of the children who died in the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., by doing something to help children here. Throughout this year, The Star will write about organizations working to give children a better future.
How to help
The HALO center in Kansas City relies on volunteers to provide art therapy programs and workshops to people ages 5 to 20. Supplies are also needed, everything from paints and paper to paper towels and glitter. If you would like to donate and know more about HALO, call 816-472-4256, send email to [email protected] or go to HALOWorldwide.org.