A place to grow and thrive
Kansas nonprofit provides fine arts education to foster youth
On a morning in March, 13 students ages 11-18 sat in chairs on three risers in a room at Friends University in Wichita, Kan. Adult volunteers called student advocates sat interspersed among the students, singing along to “Firefly” and helping students follow along with the printed music.
Executive director Lisa Paine started the tax-exempt nonprofit Juniper Arts Academy last year to provide fine arts education for youth in the local foster care and juvenile justice systems. The group kicked off its first term in September 2021 with 14 students from the Youth Horizons Kinloch Price Boys Ranch in Valley Center, Kan., a suburb of Wichita. Utilizing classrooms made available for free from a local nondenominational church and Friends University, where Paine and many of the volunteers attended school, the organization offers a choir class and ukulele lessons.
Paine said the name “Juniper” points to the juniper tree: “It can grow and thrive in spaces where you maybe wouldn’t expect something to thrive.”
Student advocates are matched with 1-4 students for the entire term. Paine said that a volunteer’s passion for Juniper’s mission is more important than their choir experience. These consistent adult relationships provide a safe space for Juniper students to participate.
“Our successes with our youth are when they make eye contact, and when they will initiate conversation, and when you can tell those little things of trust are starting,” Paine said.
James Bazil, assistant director of residential programs at Kinloch Price Boys Ranch, said that of the 27 boys ages 10-18 at Kinloch Price right now, about 10 participate in Juniper Arts. Bazil never pressures any of the boys to attend the music classes, but for those who are interested, it’s an opportunity they often don’t have elsewhere. He said the boys especially benefit from the one-on-one model at Juniper. “Anything that we can get that encourages kids to have pro-social behavior in public settings, that’s what we’re all about,” he said.
Eileen Price, 26, began teaching choir during Juniper’s second term. A choral director at Mead Middle School in Wichita, she started volunteering during the first term after Paine invited her. In class, Price moved quickly from the piano to directly in front of the students, then back to the piano. She explained “crescendo” and “decrescendo” by demonstrating singing quietly while crouching close to the ground and raising her voice as she rose to stand.
Price said that she considered leaving education during COVID-19. “Juniper really, honestly saved my career this past year,” she said. “I get to step away from the education system, but not students. … It made me realize like, oh, no, I actually love this. I’m actually very good at this. And I can’t walk away from these students.”
In February, Paine went full time with Juniper, leaving her job as assistant director at a local faith-based nonprofit that focuses on the arts and work skills preparation for at-risk youth. This summer, she said, Juniper plans to begin hiring teachers on a contract basis.
While Juniper Arts Academy is not a faith-based organization, and volunteers and staff are not required to have a religious affiliation, Paine and some volunteers say their faith impacts their decision to invest in Juniper students.
Student advocate Chris Loucks, 30, said his Christian faith is his “strong foundation.” One of Loucks’ assigned buddies became a “role model” in the choir, but at first wasn’t very interested in participating. “Just seeing the persistence, what it can bring to those students, I think is very exciting,” Loucks said.
Paine has found many people eager to give financially and volunteer. A local music store provides instruments—so far, ukuleles—at cost. She found a lawyer willing to file legal documents for the nonprofit pro bono: “I’ve found the most important thing is to just be vulnerable and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”
Looking forward, Paine said the organization plans to start offering guitar, piano, and voice lessons this summer, and eventually add visual arts such as painting, crocheting, or pottery.
Paine hopes people realize these students are in many ways just like other youth. “There are some people who will assume they’re just tough kids—that’s who they are,” she said. “But they are so ready to love and be loved, and they just desperately want to be a part of something that matters.”
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