Life in a juvenile detention facility conjures an image of cement cells and rigid rules. At Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center in Wauwatosa, Express Yourself Milwaukee brings creativity and perhaps some hope to the young detainees.
Express Yourself Milwaukee is a nonprofit that uses the arts to transform the lives of Milwaukee’s urban youth. In 2013, the organization partnered with the Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP), a program that allows juvenile courts to place youth in local secure detention facilities for up to 180 days.
Artists come to the juvenile facility, at 10201 Watertown Plank Road, once a week and spend an hour with the adolescents teaching them music, song, dance, poetry and multimedia technology.
“The therapeutic approach allows the youth to talk about change in life through music, arts and crafts,” said Lori Vance, executive director of Express Yourself. “There are a lot of studies that show the neurological shifts in the brain when adolescents are engaged in the arts.”
The program has worked with 35 teenagers to date, Vance said.
Before MCAP was established, artists worked with youth only four times during their detention.
“The longer duration of time with MCAP gives youth the opportunity to develop relationships with the artists,” said Thomas Wanta, division administrator for the center.
The artists take the teenagers out of their traditional comfort zone by creating a non-judgmental environment. One of the artists, Maggie Rauh, recalled one of her recent triumphs – getting a shy teen to dance.
Rauh, who also teaches photography, said the students were touched that they were trusted with expensive camera equipment. She added that their photography prowess led to a discussion about how the hobby could eventually turn into a career and change the course of their lives.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the program is that it makes teenagers feel normal, Wanta said.
“The center is not a place where you get to be a kid very often,” added Eric Weaver, community partnerships coordinator for Running Rebels.
After five months in the facility, the youth spend the remaining seven months of the program back in the community, monitored by Running Rebels. Each teen is assigned an advocate who checks in with the teen multiple times a week.
Adolescents can participate in Express Yourself Milwaukee even after leaving the juvenile facility.
“Continuing to participate in Express Yourself is suggested, but not required,” said Weaver. “It’s easier for them to hold themselves accountable to a plan they created.”
Art produced by teenagers at the Juvenile Justice Center will be shown at the Alverno College Pitman Theatre, 3431 S. 39th St., on May 8 at 6 p.m.