Using The Life-Saving Power of Creativity

As Create Now’s work has proven, the arts are integral to safety, security, and emotional well-being.
December 14, 2020
Photo by Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

Being stuck at home during COVID-19 has been especially challenging for kids, to say the least. But the silver-lining is that everyone has a tool they can draw upon to address quarantine blues: creativity! Think how bleak life would be without music, dance, fashion, movies, and other forms of artistic expression. The arts connect us to our culture and, most importantly, stimulate our imaginations and uplift our spirits.

I have seen firsthand the life-changing — and life-saving — nature of creativity. Creativity had always been important in my life, growing up to two philanthropic parents who encouraged me to follow my passion, which was writing. With their support, I began writing stories and poems at age seven. This evolved into a successful screenwriting career.

My life and understanding of creativity changed in 1991, when I was working on a film production in East Los Angeles as a script supervisor. It was a weeknight around 2:00 a.m. and two young boys were hanging out with the film crew. I asked where their parents were. The eight year-old said, “I don’t know where my mother is and my father don’t give a bleep.” I was shocked. But it turns out that the boy was not an anomaly: Los Angeles has more homeless and foster children than anywhere in the nation, and more incarcerated youth than the rest of the world.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew I had to make a difference. I contacted all the juvenile detention facilities and volunteered to teach a screenwriting workshop. Nobody returned my calls. A year later, the LA Riots took place. Itching to do something positive, I volunteered with a group of people and met Wanda Patterson, who worked at Optimist Youth Homes, a juvenile detention center in Highland Park. With her help, I began to teach a screenwriting workshop to 30 incarcerated teenage boys.

At first, it was intimidating to be in close (but safe) contact with youth locked up for rape, theft and assault. But I found that most of them were really terrific kids who never got to enjoy a violence-free childhood. As I heard about the abuse, neglect and abandonment they had endured, my heart opened wide. My perspective wholly changed: if I had been in their shoes, I might have also lashed out and committed crimes, too.

Through this workshop, something astonishing happened: these kids learned how to read and write. Their self-esteem and confidence sky-rocketed. They wanted to stay in school and apply to college. One gang leader even had loyalty tattoos removed from his neck and hand. Based on this success, I taught a second screenwriting workshop at a co-ed detention facility, and I got the same results. A Hollywood TV producer heard about my successes and offered me $5,000 to start my charity, Create Now. I agreed: my experiences with the incarcerated teens compelled me to change the lives of the “forgotten children,” those who have fallen through the cracks. I also wanted to pay forward what my parents had given to me.

Create Now empowers young people through arts education and mentoring. In 24 years, we’ve reached over 49,000 youngsters ages 3–24 who are challenged by poverty, abuse, neglect, incarceration or are left orphaned and homeless. We produce a variety of workshops customized to our volunteers’ locations and schedules in painting, graphic design, comedy — ALL the arts you can imagine.

Disadvantaged kids in schools also take Create Now’s comprehensive classes in guitar, visual arts, writing and STEAM. Each year, we bring thousands of poverty-stricken families to concerts, plays, museums and Cirque du Soleil shows through our Cultural Journeys program. Create Now’s annual arts festivals, talent shows and mural projects are a big hit in the community.

Although at-risk youth may struggle with academics, many excel in the arts. They develop confidence while discovering that creative expression is a positive way to release stress. The benefits of the arts are undeniable: A 2012 NEA study, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” shows that teenage students in the bottom 25% of the socioeconomic scale who have access to the arts had better academic results and workforce opportunities, enrolled in competitive colleges, and were three times more likely than students without arts education to earn bachelor’s degrees. These students also had more civic engagement, voting and volunteering than their peers.

The benefits of the arts are undeniable.

During COVID-19, the Create Now team realized that many of the foster and homeless youth we serve are suffering from PTSD without any family support. They especially need the therapeutic power of the arts. Since May, we’ve been producing Zoom classes in guitar, arts and crafts, and even magic to kids of all ages who are at emergency shelters, foster group homes and transitional-living housing. These young people relish the opportunity to explore their creativity.

Currently, the teenage girls at a foster group home in Orange County (many of whom are recovering from sex-trafficking) love our photography workshop. They are learning to see their temporary environment and themselves through the lens of a camera. Runaway and homeless teens at an emergency shelter near Downtown Los Angeles are taking cooking classes with a Food Network chef. This has taught them how to fend for themselves as they emancipate from the Department of Children and Family Services.

As Create Now’s work has proven, the arts are integral to safety, security, and emotional well-being. As we all contend with the difficulties of COVID-19, we could all benefit from the skills learned by the kids served through Create Now. So get creative!

Here are some ideas:

  • Handmade gifts and cards are more precious than something you’ve purchased. Your time and heart have gone into making something special for the recipient. Make these specifically for the holidays or just to brighten someone’s day.
  • Sing songs to exercise your voice and relieve neck strain. Singing also helps with depression and stress. You could mix your favorite melodies with updated lyrics about COVID-19.
  • Dance in a solo performance, or choreograph the movements with your family. Share it online. This will not only be fun and provide exercise, it can bond you more with your loved ones.
  • Write a poem that you can print and frame as a lovely gift for someone special — including yourself!

Being creative helps to solve problems, build knowledge and develop confidence. I’ve seen firsthand the amazing impact the arts have had on the kids Create Now has served for over 20 years. It’s time to spread the joy of creativity to your household: you may be surprised and delighted by what you discover!

Jill Gurr is the Founder and CEO at Create Now.

Join Create Now’s “Sip and Paint” benefit on February 6, 2021, on Zoom with three fun arts projects for all ages, plus an auction and socializing. Create Now needs your support to help vulnerable youth to heal from abuse and homelessness through creativity. Visit www.createnow.org.

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