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A Mother’s Love: Art inspires troubled students

Jayne Matthews Hopson | 11/14/2014, 6 a.m.
I have a confession to make. Never once in the nine years I have written Education Matters has this column ...

I have a confession to make. Never once in the nine years I have written Education Matters has this column touched on the unique academic needs and challenges of grade school students in the juvenile justice system.

Although, I knew this was an important subject, affecting hundreds of children and their families, my avoidance of this subject was conscious and deliberate. Why?— As a mother and veteran educational advocate, I had seen enough of the classroom-to-prison pipeline to know my sense of helplessness would break my spirit if I looked too deeply into the lives of children caught up in a system that frequently becomes a stepping stone to adult incarceration— until now!

The primary goal of our criminal justice system is to protect the public’s safety. There is little room for the creation and implementation of innovative programs designed to touch the humanity of children caught in its web of bureaucratic mandates. Juvenile offenders, themselves often the victims of crimes, are at the mercy of a society lacking the will and resources to ensure that every child grows up feeling loved, wanted and protected from life’s harsh realities.

Under these circumstances, Education Matters saw no hope for making any positive academic changes for children whose rights and freedom are under the control of juvenile justice system.

However, recently I became aware of A Mother’s Love (AML), a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing expanded educational experiences to students at their first encounter with the juvenile justice system.

The organization’s name not only conveys what it seeks to offer but its work encourages others to share with troubled kids that primal force of nature known as a mother’s love.

Using subjects like art, music and creative writing, AML’s goal is to remove the false bravado, soften tough exteriors and replace trouble-making activities with academic confidence so that these students can grow into productive, self-sufficient adults.

This week, bolstered by access to AML’s administrators, its Board of Trustees, student case managers and Department of Juvenile Justice Service judges, Education Matters begins a series of articles about the hope a mother’s love always inspires.

In keeping with the Baltimore Time’s mission, I start with a positive story about a positive person.

A little over a year ago artist Alex Benitez, through AML’s art-based programming began working with Baltimore teenagers on probation resulting from social, anger or disciplinary issues.

Benitez’s, whose paintings have sold in galleries in Miami; New York; San Juan; and Baltimore, brings the kind of energy, kindness and caring to his students that breaks down barriers of distrust of authority and dissipates the malaise that settles over troubled children who have seen and lived with the dark side of life.

Now, the brand new father of a beautiful baby girl, Benitez is keenly aware that raising a child properly is a huge, precious responsibility.

In working with his students he has learned firsthand that parenting is a task not everyone is equipped to handle.

“Most of these children have gone through very traumatic experiences and in order to survive, quickly become a product of their environment” said Benitez. “We all know the reasons. Poor parenting, lack of positive role models [and a] broken school system. Yet, in the end, for me it’s all about what they don’t get— love and attention. The question is, how do we as a society help them?” stay on the correct path?”

Inspired by time spent getting to know his students, Benitez created a collection of paintings to capture on canvas how the lives of these children have impacted his life and his art.

Last weekend, he held an exhibit here in Baltimore inspired by the dreams, wishes and thoughts of his students. The works are stunning, thought-provoking, color drenched images, connected in their disconnectedness, and like his students require that you to give them the attention they deserve.

“Hopefully, the images are able to capture the complex and fascinating nature of their personalities and convey how much this experience has changed me as a person” said Benitez. “I also wish to wake up a collective realization of where we are as a city and as a society in hopes of answering one question: What are we doing to help our troubled youth?”

Next Week: Student stories and the artwork they inspired.

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about educational matters because in the words of Epictetus, former slave and Greek Stoic philosopher “only the educated are free.”