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Club connects students with incarcerated parents to cultural arts in community
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Club connects students with incarcerated parents to cultural arts in community

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The elementary school students who belong to the Cultural Connections club don’t often speak about their common denominator.

But they know they are connected by the common thread of having an incarcerated parent. While that may be the underlying connection, the youngsters mostly just see the club as a chance to do art and get out in the community.

“If you wish to do art sometime then that’s checked off your bucket list because they help you do art and release your stress and stuff,” said Renia Buckley, a fourth-grader at Lake View Elementary School. “You get to get really messy without getting in trouble.”

Pat Dillon, of Madison, founded the program to link children with an incarcerated parent to cultural arts in the community. The program is offered every Tuesday at Lake View Elementary, and Dillon plans to continue it this summer. Her assistant is Sapphina Roller, a senior at Verona High School who plans to study at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Dillon’s focus is finding ways for the students to interact with the community with the art projects they do at Lake View and elsewhere as the vehicle.

“The program is not about kids doing art,” Dillon said. “It’s about exposing them to cultural art and academic opportunities in the city.”

For example, on Saturday the students went to the building that houses Dane Arts Mural Arts — one of Cultural Connections’ partners — to paint butterflies that will be displayed at Olbrich Botanical Gardens during its Blooming Butterflies exhibit this summer.

“I like that we get to go to different places and make different things,” Lake View fourth-grader Cartier Flowers said.

The club was a natural fit for Dillon, who is an artist who paints and has a grandson whose father is in prison. In addition, she found joy and success in art when she was young and didn’t always do well in other areas of school.

An estimated 2,000 children in Dane County have an incarcerated parent. They largely go unsupported by the community as a distinct group, said Dillon, who has researched the issue.

She said data shows these children suffer more adverse childhood experiences than other children with disparities. Those experiences can include homelessness, living in a household with an abusive or drug-addicted family member, living in foster care or suffering trauma from being separated from a parent. In addition, she said, incarceration disproportionately affects families of color.

“We know that if you take kids and expose them long-term to art and programs that provide art that they do better in life, they do better in school, their truancy rates drop,” Dillon said. “Art saves people.”

One of the volunteers, Hannah Manthey, said the program would have helped her when she was the age of the club members and had a parent who was incarcerated. Manthey, who introduced herself to the club by mentioning her background, said the youngsters can work out their frustrations in a healthy way and then look back with a sense of accomplishment about what they created.

After Lake View parent liaison Tom Qualls read about Cultural Connections’ work with Madison youths last summer, the school contracted Dillon to run the program with a dozen students who have a parent who is incarcerated. The Lake View club is one of the after-school programs offered by the school and Madison School & Community Recreation.

Qualls said his involvement in the club has given the students another person to reach out to at school and it has helped him form deeper relationships with them and their parents.

The club brings together kids who wouldn’t naturally be friends, he said. It also gives an outlet to students who may not take pride in their schoolwork and provides a sense of belonging.

“They are really finding themselves here and seeing themselves as capable,” Qualls said.

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