Young artists: the future of the community

A look at how art has taken up permanent residence at the Green Bay Boys & Girls Club

By Rachel Sankey

“Mr. Craig” Knitt and young artist Ariel working on a drawing. Rachel Sankey Photo

Art encourages fine motor skills, neural development and problem-solving abilities. What better way is there to help shape the next generation of leaders, skilled workers, artists and performers than to introduce art in some capacity at a young age. It’s a strategy Green Bay’s west side Boys & Girls Club has put into its every day activities for nearly a decade.

History of Boys & Girls Club

Founded in 1860 by Mary Goodwin, Alice Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammersley in Hartford, Connecticut, The Boys & Girls Club of America has been around for more than 160 years.

Initially started to give boys running around in the streets a more impactful option, and officially starting as the Boys & Girls Club in 1906, the organization has grown over the years.

Craig Knitt, creative arts specialist of the Green Bay west side site, said the club has become much more than a place to shoot some hoops.

“That’s ultimately what it was for the longest time, almost like a glorified babysitter to a degree,” Knitt said. “But that’s not the Boys & Girls Club anymore. It has so many programs available for kids, and I love it.”

Youth Arts Initiative (YI)

One of the programs unique to the club’s west side site is the Youth Arts Initiative, which started about seven years ago. Knitt said the initiative, which was funded through a grant from the Wallace Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated to improve learning for children, has now become a permanent part of the club.

“(The grant) was typically given to arts organizations,” he said. “However, the Boys and Girls Club was not an arts organization at that time. (The Wallace Foundation) was really happy they chose us because of that factor. We weren’t an arts organization and they wanted to see the impact of the arts on kids in an afterschool setting. The results were phenomenal.”

Things started with a kid interviewing process to see what art forms they wanted to have at the club. Knitt said music, digital filmmaking, dance and visual arts – including comic design were popular answers.

He said the Wallace Foundation did lots of independent research on their branch to see if the initiative would work, which it did, he said.

“They wanted to see if they could transcend the arts to go into the club as a mainstream thing,” Knitt said. “One of those things is our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program. It is almost a direct result of coming right out of YI. Because we’re so conscious of our kids’ mental health.”

The YI program was only supposed to last two years, but Knitt said its success showed the Wallace Foundation it works and continued the funds for an additional five years.

Taylor DeBroux, director of Quality and Process Improvement, said from the Youth Arts Initiative came the six pillars that are now the base food the programs at the Boys & Girls Club.

She said the pillars include equity, diversity & inclusion, healthy lifestyles, social emotional learning, creative arts and STEM, mentorship and academic success and workforce readiness.

Here comes the comics

Since the start of the initiative, Knitt said the Oneida Street Boys & Girls Club has worked on and completed several comic books.

One of the most popular comic books to come out of the student’s efforts was Food Shack – funnies centered around food created by the kids.

Ivan was also a part of the first ‘Food Shack’ comic book to come out through the Youth Arts Initiative. Submitted Comics

The book, Knitt said, became much more than comics.

“The second we turned it into a restaurant, it changed the whole dynamic of everything,” he said. “It went from being a comic book to a whole bunch of other things, and the learning process was huge.”

The kids built three-dimensional sculptures of what the restaurant would look like as well as created a short film where the setting took place in the Food Shack.

One of Olivia’s comic strips in the original ‘Food Shack’ comics.

Though creating the comics is a fun activity for the kids, Knitt said they also want it to be a learning experience.

“Having fun is still a main focus of what we do, but we also want them to learn things,” he said. “We definitely want the kids to develop a foundational skill set. For the arts, there are things that you can do, within shading, within figure drawing and landscape drawing – all these things where your skill set is going to get stronger. And sometimes it’s not the most fun thing, to do a shading scale, for example, but it will teach you how to make it stronger.”

Knitt said some of the former west side club kids have gone on to pursue art degrees, such as Grayson Roberts and Seth Serrano, who are both going to school for graphic design.

Other comics that kids at the club have created include Animal Tails and Doodle Planet.

Kaeden’s comic strip, which was featured in the first ‘Food Shack’ comic.

More than comics

Though Knitt said many talented children have worked on the comic books featured at the Boys & Girls Club, others have taken on other artistic passions.

Yelishka, a young artist, said art can take on many forms, and hopes to paint a mural one day.

“Music is a way of art for other people,” she said. “Some people draw, some people make comics and some people dance.”

Denyah, another young artist at the club, helped shoot a music video with Cujo, a local hip-hop artist.

“I really love art,” Denyah said. “My favorite art is musical art. And it really stuck out to me that I was able to be a part of that, because I love musical art. I’ve always wanted to be a singer or a dancer for a side job, because I want to be a doctor, too. So, art is very important to me, because that’s how I express myself.”

In the community

Knitt said another way the club advocates youth art is getting them involved in the community and real-life experiences.

“The first time the kids participated in Arti Gras, they loved it,” he said. “And we’ve done public signings at Barnes and Noble.”
Knitt said some of the kids also recently went to view a gallery exhibit at St. Norbert College.

Along with working with businesses and local creators, DeBroux said part of the club’s now-permanent programming includes a service program.

“The kids get to choose any service project that they want,” she said. “They just got done doing a hot chocolate stand fundraiser for the humane society. But the next one they decided on was teaching an art class for others. So they’re developing a project and learning how to facilitate an arts workshop. We’re going to record it and put it on our website so they can teach kids at other school sites, but also have the youth teach the staff.”

The future

When it comes to the future, both Knitt and DeBroux said they are living in it.

“I think we’re really well into the future of it right now, because we’re seeing it continue as an entity,” Knitt said. “I’m so proud of the fact that the arts are still a focus in what we’re doing here. And for as long as I can, I want to help facilitate that, and advocate the arts for the state of Wisconsin, for our kids.”

Check out this month’s debuting young artist in Club Comics on page 15.


Rachel Sankey is the associate editor of Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at rsankey@mmclocal.com

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