The Tile Project has been part of YouthCare’s offering of employment training programs for almost 15 years. On the face of it, it's about making art: for 10 weeks, participants (age 15–22) come to the James W. Ray Orion Center to learn how to create mosaic pieces, picking up related design skills along the way.
As Paula Mattson, our long-time instructor, explains, there's a larger goal. The program draws upon the creativity that’s in all of us, and, “starting with small projects, building confidence, and working up to this huge project, it gives youth the ability to see themselves doing something greater.”
Many participants have had little chance to experience sustained accomplishment. Frequently, their lives were disrupted long before they became homeless. Some are now struggling to get past substance abuse or other issues; some are still on the streets. Case Manager Leslie Horton, who has supported youth before, during, and beyond their time with Paula, sees the program's effect on these vulnerable youth. Most of them “go into Tile with lowered confidence. Being able to achieve, creating a beautiful piece of finished art, transforms them.”
The fact that the Tile Project is an employment training program, not just an arts class, is key to its success. As Anthony, one participant, points out, “There aren’t a lot of places that are, like, ‘Hey, you’re homeless. I’m going to give you a job and pay you to do art.’” Young people who have been thrown off track, desperately alone, are now hooking up with a paycheck (minimum wage, part-time) and gaining both workplace and life skills – thanks to specialized instruction and simple time spent together in the studio.
They bring their own motivations and interests. Brian is interested in interior design, so he decided to create a dollhouse (with incredible detail) instead of a mosaic. Asked what it meant to him as a budding artist, he made it clear: “It felt amazing. It felt like a real house.” It's definitely one for the portfolio, a beautiful piece of work. More important, in the long run, is the fact that Brian sees now that he's on his way.
Success in the Tile Program tends to push young people – these young adults in the making – to continue to challenge themselves. After completing the program last year, Anthony interviewed for and landed an internship at YouthCare’s administrative offices. His natural ability and the workplace skills he'd developed were both much in evidence. Today, he has his own apartment and a full-time job, and he's planning for college. He's full of dreams, but he's well grounded. That's Anthony – but, as he says, the Tile Project helped helped him find his path: “It taught me to take it one step at a time. I can’t do it all at once.”
For 25 young people each year, art is a way in. It's literally an entry: they take it from there. Young people who have experienced great harm, exclusion, chaos, and the kind of self-doubt that can kill souls suddenly perceive that the world can become – that it can be made – a little more beautiful. Best of all, they discover that they have the imagination and the power to do it.