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‘Me, Myself & I’ A child’s self-portrait exploration

How do we light the spark of creativity for the development of children? We would like to believe that such path should be available to all children. In an effort to extend this opportunity to as many children as possible, regardless of social economic background, experience or ability, The Children’s Fine and Performing Arts Foundation (CFPAF) started the “Me, Myself & I” program. Through this program, children receive the opportunity to tell their own story and how they view themselves through their own eyes.

As stated by CFPAF, “With our program, the innate creativity of children is sparked by the introduction of fine and gross motor movement, cognitive reasoning and new visual and auditory cues. This creative “surge is then harnessed to develop a new narrative to tell their story and explore themselves and their connection to the world around them.”

With this philosophy in mind, the CFPAF this past summer held an event called “Play Ball for Autism!” at Joe Riley Stadium, where autistic children were invited to come participate in a variety of activities and to meet with organizations that specialize in programs just for them. There was a great turnout and the event served as a tremendous lead in for its follow-up event, the “Me, Myself & I” Program.

The “Me, Myself & I” program was a two-day event featuring the Girl’s Club at the Meeting Street Academy (MSA) in downtown Charleston. This group of second through fifth graders worked around a theme of empowering girls and highlighting their core values.

I attended the program to watch this process first-hand and found the program truly amazing. On the first day of the program, the children were photographed in four different poses and on the following day they got the opportunity to paint their own portrait in any way they chose. Volunteers from the CFPAF, along with a few teachers from MSA, were present to help lead these young girls through their activities and to encourage them in their creativity at every turn. Volunteers from CFPAF consisted of Beth Bogush, executive director, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of CFPAF, Melissa Bradshaw, art advisor and teacher, Banner Adams, photographer, Brooke Wood, associate director and Dr. James Yanney, co-founder and CEO of the CFPAF.

The second day of the program began with a demonstration from Melissa Bradshaw, instructing the girls on how to get started on their portraits, while also introducing them to the works of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. An American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat’s art focused on disparate themes as a form of social commentary to highlight a deeper truth about an individual and served as an example for these children that it is ok to break the norm to express oneself.

After Bradshaw finished her demonstration, the children energetically rushed to an open spot at a table and were excited to start on their own portraits. The room was filled with music and laughter as the kids worked creatively to each make their portrait unique in their own way. It was interesting to witness the decisions that some of these girls made with the features that they added to their portrait. I noticed one girl named Kimberley drawing stars in her eyes and when I asked her why she decided to do that, she responded with, “We are learning about astronomy in one my classes and I think stars are simply beautiful to look at.”

The other portraits were just as intriguing. As I walked around the room, each portrait contained a variety of colors and designs that made each portrait unique. Girls were asking the teachers what colors they should use, to which each time the response was, “Whatever you want, there are no wrong choices.” This shows the support and encouragement shown by both the CFPAF and MSA, sending a message to these children that it is ok to not be held back by what they may think are limitations.

At the end of the day, each girl signed their portrait with the signature of their choice and placed them in a safe area to dry. After that, the class did something I thought was very cool. Before finishing the class, MSA teachers asked the girls if anyone had any “shout-outs,” meaning if any of the kids wanted to say something specific to those who came that day to help. Many of the kids gave shout-outs to the CFPAF volunteers, thanking them for taking the time to come and help them improve their artistic and creative abilities. It was clear that these girls experienced a great time and were positively impacted by the whole experience. Looking back on the event, Beth Bogush noted, “Our foundation was very excited to have the opportunity to work with the talented students and faculty at MSA. We were met with such grace and enthusiasm from Principal Dirk Bedford and the fabulous teachers who helped to organize our event.”

Though the “Me, Myself & I” Program was a success, there is still more to come. CFPAF will be returning to MSA on December 10th to continue working with these children and start on Phase Three, which entails bringing in Emmy Award winning creators and writers of children’s television from Nickelodeon’s “Nick Jr.” and the Disney Channel. Through this, Bogush states, “Students will be introduced to the creative writing process and guide them through character development all of which will culminate in a finished version of all the students told in one book.” One of the individuals who will be attending is Rodney Stringfellow, a writer and producer known for works such as The Backyardigans (2004), Curfew (2016) and Taina (2001).

Meeting Street Schools and founder Ben Navarro were able to open its first independent school in Charleston in 2008 with the help of then Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and currently has an enrollment of 264 students in grades Pre-K through 5th grade for the 2018-2019 school year. Since 2008, student enrollment has consistently grown, demanding that a new wing be added in the all of 2016 to accommodate the new students. The success of MSA-Charleston has led to the opening of three other MSA schools in the state of South Carolina.

In 2012, the second MSA school opened in the heart of downtown Spartanburg and is currently expected to have an enrollment of 240 students in grades Pre-K 3 through 5th grade for the 2018-2019 academic year. And, as of the 2016-2017 school year, MSA-Spartanburg has joined Spartanburg District 7 in the second public/private partnership in MSS history. Following MSA-Spartanburg in 2014, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood was the third MSA school to be opened. Working with the Charleston County School District, MSA@Brentwood is the first public-private educational partnership of its kind and is located in North Charleston, SC.

Also, MSA@Brentwood currently has an enrollment of 540 students in grades Pre-K 3 through 5th grade, through which it upholds the tradition and mission of implementing an extremely successful model for serving students from under-resourced backgrounds into a public school. The most recent school to be opened is Meeting Street Elementary at Burns, which opened in August 2018 and is located in North Charleston as well. Staying consistent with the proven successful model of serving students from under-resourced backgrounds in a public school, MSE@Burns has an enrollment of 180 children from kindergarten through 2nd grade.

In what seems like a perfect relationship, the CFPAF and MSA both strive to achieve a similar goal by offering a unique experience to children regardless of their background. As Navarro states, “The idea that your educational opportunity would be determined by where you are born or by your zip code — it’s unfair. It’s un-American.” It is exciting to see what the future holds and the continued positive impact that will be made on these children. Now that seems like a win-win for all involved.

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