In the summer of 2017, Niya was 14 and living at The Salvation Army homeless shelter with her mom, two sisters, and her brother. Some tough life challenges left the family without a permanent place to stay and in need of help. Niya had a difficult time adjusting to the change. She had feelings of anger, frustration, and loneliness, causing her to retreat inward. A shelter worker noticed Niya working on drawings during her time at the shelter and recommended that she join the Free Arts Multicultural Arts Camp (also known as MAC Camp). The Salvation Army has been one of Free Arts’ partner agencies and has provided participants to Free Arts programs for many years. Niya recalls dreading the idea of waking up early to go to a place with a bunch of strangers, but after two days, she was in love. MAC Camp provided an outlet for her to express her feelings. She felt supported by the positive adult mentors and felt connected to peers experiencing similar situations. Niya experienced the various cultures and styles of visual and performing arts. At the end of her week at camp, she was begging Free Arts staff to accept her into the next camp in the summer series, Theater Camp. It was at Theater Camp that Niya found her voice, her sense of self, and her passion for singing. “I went from the kid who ate alone in the library at school during lunch, to the one who loved being on stage.” She continues, “I gained so much self-confidence, and a love for the arts.” For Niya, her favorite part of Theater Camp was watching her fellow campers come out of their shells. Campers shared their stories of hurt and sorrow as well as their resilience and hope for the future. “It was so beautiful to watch what the arts can do,” she adds with a smile.
Now, 16, Niya is once again at MAC Camp this year. It’s her 4th Free Arts camp, but this year is a little different. This year, Niya is not just a participant in the first week with fellow teens, but she gets to come back the following week when Free Arts invites the younger campers, ages 9 – 13, to help out as a volunteer. Niya explains, “I love being able to help others like me. I can tell the camper that I was in the same boat as them and mean it.” While she is enjoying her new role in camp, Niya is ecstatic about participating in Theater Camp again this year. Niya is planning on singing 4 songs at camp, 2 that she wrote, and 2 in which she composed the music. Most of all, she is looking forward to working in the group ensemble pieces.
While Niya will be leaving Phoenix for Lincoln, Nebraska, by the end of the summer, she will take her Free Arts experience with her. “I just learned I got a scholarship to a performing arts school in Lincoln” she says with great excitement. “I am sad to leave, but so excited for what the future holds. I owe almost all of that to Free Arts and the gifts the staff, volunteers, and fellow campers have given to me.” We, at Free Arts, wish Niya all the best in this new chapter of her life.