Come rain, shine, or pandemic, Million Little never stops providing for our youth. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been forced to change, transitioning to remote programing and enhancing our Digital Arts Project. We’ve communicated with our youth through notebook sharing and Instagram DMs, Zoom calls and old school letters. Like everyone else we’ve adapted to our new environment with the hope of one day being able to return to our youth in person once more.
While for over a year that day seemed like something of a pipe dream, it finally arrived as we walked through the doors of the juvenile detention camp where some of our girls reside. They too had adapted, under even harsher conditions than we had become accustomed to, and yet they did so unflinchingly, taking the time to write out letters by hand in a world permeated by digital communication and playfully engaging with the content provided to them in our weekly journals.
It is a strange feeling to finally meet someone you have gotten to know so intimately, but remotely. Our girls did not miss a beat as they skipped into our makeshift art room. They happily introduced themselves, even though it didn’t feel like they needed to. It was more like a reunion than meeting for the first time.
After a quick mindful writing session, the girls quickly hopped into projects based on their interests. Our program is designed for each of our students to be able to explore their individuality and authenticity through their art. One carefully traced a portrait of the character Huey Freeman from the animated sitcom The Boondocks, a favorite of hers. Another, spent her first few minutes creating a colorful “DO NOT WAKE ME” sign for her door in vibrant pinks and purples, colors that have proven to be some of her favorites. Others spent their time painting acrylic on canvas and coloring with oil pastels, ultimately ending the session getting their hands dirty in clay. One student created two hearts for Million Little staff to take back to the office, before hastily putting together a clay snowman in her last few minutes that she has since dubbed, “George.” Each girl was able to express themselves in a way that was meaningful and self-revelatory to them.
As well as we felt we had gotten to know the girls through their creative journals, our connection was infinitely improved after just one session in the field and they all shared their excitement at returning the following week. Only seeing our collection of fabrics as she was exiting the room, one youth exclaimed, “Miss, can I have this?” as she threw a bundle of fabrics into her arms. We assured her that the fabrics would be back the following week, and set aside her selection for her.
When we returned the following week, the girls were eager to get to know us even better. From the start they had a barrage of questions for us, “Are you married?” “Where were you born?” “How far is Korea?” Their natural curiosity leads them, not only in their art-making but in their daily lives. While some youth can be apprehensive toward new individuals, our girls instantaneously began building off of the year-long relationship we had built with them remotely, asking intimate and deeply felt inquiries regarding our lives.
Enticed by the fabric from the previous week, many of them decided to start sewing projects of their own. Despite none of them knowing how to sew at the start, they practically taught themselves by the end, with only minimal instruction from Million Little staff. Though, of course, there was the occasional, “Can’t you do this for me?” They always found a creative solution to any problem they ran into. They are independent, driven young women who continually surprise us with their ingenuity.
There will always be challenges in our line of work, and the pandemic has been one of the most significant instances of adversity yet. However, seeing the joy and perseverance that our youth bring day in and day out, not only makes the struggle worth it, but it inspires us to continue forth in our mission.
Being back in the field reminds us that remote programming really is no substitute for in-person, though not for any of the traditional reasons you might think. It’s true that students retain less information when learning remotely and that the emotional connection developed is more shallow, but these aren’t the things that we are reminded of. It’s the joy our youth bring into the world. We are reminded that this joy is so much more immense when shared, instead of locked away in a tiny room. They have passed their joy on to us and it’s our duty now to pass it on to you.
Though we never lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel, it sure does feel good to finally break through and feel the rays of sunshine on our face, once again. Even if we face further tunnels ahead, even if it’s only for a moment, it feels great.