Arts Connection linking students through virtual creation

·3 min read

Reach to Teach is all about joining forces through art.

The brainchild of Arts Connection CEO Linda Shirley, who in 2012 was looking to support students in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the program connects those students with peers in Richmond.

The Richmond-based Arts Connection provides child care, arts and educational programs in the city. Shirley explains she wanted to support students at Admiral Seymour Elementary School in downtown Vancouver after hearing the pleas for help from a teacher who explained the disadvantages her students faced, including lack of access to clothes and snacks. Shirley learned her father attended the school in the 1920s and the family operated its business nearby for over 50 years.

“I wanted to come up with a creative and long-term plan to support the students, creating a family legacy of sorts,” says Shirley. “I approached the Community Arts Council of Richmond with the plan, and a partnership was formed to bring the idea to fruition.”

Typically, Vancouver students come to the Arts Connection once a month for four months, completing a full day of arts programming including visual arts, digital arts and dramatic arts. Over the course of the semester, students work together on collaborative art projects. Then, in the fifth month, a celebration luncheon is held.

The program is funded by many sources, including the City of Richmond, the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt a School program, Porte Communities, and various corporate and private donors. The Arts Connection donates the space to operate the program and covers administrative costs involved in its organization and operation.

But this year, like so many things, the collaborative program was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still wanting to offer the opportunity, Arts Connection staff ran the first semester virtually, and began the second semester virtually this month. Program offerings were pared down to just visual arts and dramatic arts, and art supplies were delivered to schools. The end-of-semester celebration also went virtual with a live-streamed string quartet performance and donut delivery.

“The major difference is that the instructors and students can only bond so much (through virtual programs),” says Shirley. “There is so much energy and joy prevalent when students are on site. However, the camaraderie in their in-person virtual class bloomed. Their teachers were our ‘hands in situ,’ who often had their own steep learning curve on how to assist our instructors, showing step by step creative processes, or teaching them a game they have never played before.”

Despite the virtual delivery, the element of connection was able to persist. Shirley adds that the arts help students learn about their unique abilities and see the strength in diversity, as well as instilling confidence and hope: “We are gently reminding them that we really are all in it together.”

“Normally, part of the enjoyment of the program is to meet other students from a different school. Unlike sports events, the arts is not a competition. The cheerleaders sit side by side, encouraging creative bravery and brainstorming together. We all really look forward to when this great program can run in-person again.”

Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel