LYNN — In 1987, Kit Jenkins and Mary Flannery worked as art therapists at the former Danvers State psychiatric hospital.
“We loved the people, and art is a great way to connect. What we did was important, meaningful and limited. There was only x amount of impact one could make in the state system,” said Jenkins.
Flannery also worked one day a week with boys locked up in a Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility. Through art, she was able to reach these violent, angry teens and help them to gain confidence, express themselves and make responsible decisions.
One year later, Flannery and Beau Diehl, another Danvers State therapist, thought if they had a storefront in a community, they could get to these kids before they got locked up.
So, they started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Raw Art Works in Lynn, where Flannery was living. Jenkins and C.C. King joined them. Diehl and King would eventually move on.
In February of ’94, Flannery and Jenkins thought about their next move, deciding “We could be here each day when the kids get out of school,” said Jenkins.
Here it is, nearly 25 years later, and youth arts organization Raw Art Works is thriving. Co-founder Flannery is stepping aside from her daily role to open a gallery, named gas, with her husband next to RAW’s space in Central Square. She will remain on RAW’s board of directors.
Jenkins, who has served as executive director since 2000, is confident the organization is in good hands, thanks to a strong, nurturing leadership team that’s been in place for many years.
“At the start, everything was organic,” recalled Jenkins, relaxing in RAW’s first-floor gallery. The group focused on three things: the needs and assets of the youth, the passions and skills of the staff, and resources that were available in the community.
Kathe Swaback, current program director, joined Jenkins and Flannery as art therapists in May 1994.
“We had a small, ambitious, energetic staff, but we were burning out,” said Jenkins. “So, we asked ourselves: ‘What’s really going on at RAW? How do we have the best impact?’ We had to find other ways to do this work. The people who work here know art and teaching and how to work with kids.”
The budget was “teensy-tiny” at the start, said Jenkins, who added RAW was then one of her three jobs. In 2001-02, they approached their first donor about financial support. Then the Mass Cultural Council approved a YouthReach grant. “We were just art therapists; we knew nothing about the fundraising part,” said Jenkins. When she became executive director 18 years ago, she took on a budget of more than $500,000. “There were only five or six of us, even at that time. Mary, Kathe and I would huddle around our one computer, one phone and one fax machine,” she said, with a smile.
Today, RAW is supported by a large, ever-growing number of foundation and government grants, corporate contributions, and individual donors. Its operating budget is more than $2.1 million. All programs were free for the more than 600 kids who participated in RAW programs this year.
The staff of 27 is assisted by 40 or so youths and alumni. In fact, the high schoolers who serve as RAW Chiefs interview for the job and get paid for mentoring younger students.
“There are no dues. If parents can make a contribution that’s great, even if it’s $18 in $1 bills. If they can’t, that’s fine, too,” said Jenkins.
One staffer, Jason Cruz, current clinical supervisor, started as an intern in 1997 and was particularly passionate about the journeys of young men of color.
“He used art to find out what was really going on in their lives. He even put that on a T-shirt: What’s really going on,” said Jenkins. “There’s not a whole lot of male art therapists. Jason has had a huge impact in the lives of many kids and their families.”
Cruz was moonlighting at a second job that fortuitously put him in the orbit of filmmaker Joanna Lipper, who strongly suggested the kids make a film about kids. That’s how the now-flourishing Real to Reel Filmschool got its start.
“Just one of a handful of happy accidents” that have helped RAW grow, said Jenkins.
The film school’s partnership with Adobe, Project 1324, allows emerging filmmakers in Lynn and around the world to share their work with peers and get feedback.
Project Launch is another major success; each student has a staff mentor who guides him/her through the college or career training process. Every senior at RAW this year graduated from high school with a plan for the future.
“They gain self-confidence and learn to express themselves … kids are seen and heard here. They walk into RAW and say ‘I do belong here. I’m greeted by name and the RAW Chiefs (high school mentors) know me.'”
Jenkins said RAW has an experienced, enthusiastic six-person leadership team that meets weekly. “Mary’s leaving makes us respond,” said Jenkins. “We’ll all pull off at some point. The footing is firm and the leadership is shared.”
RAW bought their Central Square building in 2003. “We are committed to the kids, their families and the community of Lynn. We are an anchor here. RAW represents leadership and stability. RAW represents energy, brightness and hope.
“At 3:15 each day I’m sitting on the third floor and I hear the kids come in. ‘Hey, how are you doing’ … It still thrills me. The (investment in RAW’s) payoff is infinite,” said Jenkins.