By Gabriella, Alumni Mentor

My name is Gabriella, but my Free Arts family calls me Gabs.

Free Arts is a nonprofit organization that builds hope and heals children’s trauma through artistic expression. I know this because I was a participant. I’ve been involved with Free Arts since 2012, when I was twelve years old. I’m someone who has been through the camp experience, as I once was in the foster care system.

This summer I was involved with Free Arts in a different way. I was hired as a counselor apprentice for our Multicultural Arts Camp (MAC), which is two weeks long. The first week is for the older kids, 14-18-year-olds, and the second week for the younger kids, 9-13-year-olds. The counselor at camp is there for their group of campers through the whole week, and to make sure everyone is safe and having a good time. As a counselor you are responsible for each child like they are your own. 

MAC Camp is a multi-arts camp, so we had different forms of art to show the kids how to express themselves. This year we had native arts, where they made shields, dream catchers, and pouches. We had jazz, where the campers were taught the history of where jazz music came from, and the forms of jazz dance. There was poetry, where the campers learned the skills it takes to be a poet and learned that it’s helpful to write down how they feel. The campers were also taught Bollywood dance.

On Friday, the last day of camp, the campers do a small show for the public, friends, and family. Friends and family come and support their kids and see what they have done and created during that week at camp.  I will be honest, the shows always surprise me, and it makes me emotional seeing everything the campers put together with their hard work. 

After the two weeks of MAC Camp, we have Theater Camp. For 19 years, Free Arts has proudly partnered with the Herberger Theater Center to provide campers a professional theater experience. Performing on the Herberger stage makes our participating teens feel valued and that their voices really matter. 

I was an alumni volunteer for the two weeks of Theater Camp, so I got the chance to work with all the teens and help them in any way I could. Some of the campers knew me from MAC Camp. Everyone I worked with came to me and the other alumni for advice on the finishing touches for the pieces that they wanted to perform. The alumni once were in their shoes, we were able to help them because we could relate to them. In the first week of Theater Camp, we got to know our campers and helped them get ideas and brainstorm on what part of their story they wanted to tell. We spent the second week coming together, and putting their stories together, writing the stories as scripts, and getting the stage together to rehearse. 

This is all THEIR show. As a volunteer, counselor, artist, or alumni we do not put the show together. We help them put their show together. The stories are all personal. All the writing, lights, and the way the stage is set are the campers’ ideas. We try our best to make this a magical experience for our teens.

The campers perform everything that they created in a show, on stage, in-front of up to 500 people who are strangers, family, friends, or from the facilities where they live. That shows how brave and resilient they are to share their stories. Yes, everyone cries, and everyone laughs but the best part is sitting in the audience listening to their stories and seeing the beautiful show they put on. 

The way we impact these kids is a different type of love and support than they get. It helps grow their confidence, as they now know that their voices really matter. They now know different types of art that they could express themselves with. 

If you have never attended a show or an event with Free Arts before, I HIGHLY recommend that you do. Because, who knows, you could be taken away and impacted by these stories these kids share with you. You might open your eyes to a whole other door, and maybe you would want to be part of these life changing moments too. 

Free Arts Alumni, 

             Gabriella (Gabs)

                     Age: 19 

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