The walls of the teen center at the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club are covered with colorful artwork. Step inside the workroom and it resembles a gallery, different kinds of paintings and drawings tacked to the walls, pencils and paint brushes strewn about. This is the result of creative minds at work. In the middle of the room sits a small studio, equipped with a microphone, computers and keyboard. Next to that are lights and a green screen. It's not a big space, but it's the home base to some big ideas.
On any given day, you can find some students mixing watercolors while others step into the studio and mix original lyrics with beats. Guiding them through the creative process is the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club multimedia director, Silas Clark. His passion for the arts is infectious. A rap artist with several songs under his belt, he is just as excited as the kids to work on projects. "The arts are so undervalued in the academic world right now, but it makes such a big impact on the youth," said Clark. He recalls how much the program has grown from just a few supplies to a full working studio. "We had some little broken down computer in here with a Guitar Hero microphone and entry-level software. We made recordings, but they didn't sound very good," said Clark.
In the beginning, the students practiced writing and recording songs, mostly parodies. "Our first song we ever did was about how much we love chicken," said Victor Nkwocha, 17. The parodies led to more serious songs with fancier beats, requiring better equipment. The students asked for a studio and got one. Thanks to the Taco Bell Graduate to Go program and Mark Wahlberg, the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club received a grant to finance the studio.
The art room has become a popular hang out. "A lot of the kids that come here have different disabilities. They gravitate towards this room" said Clark. JoAnn Hodges, 18, who suffers from schizophrenia, remembers her first day at the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club. "When I first got here I was really depressed and sad. I didn't trust anybody," said Hodges."Mr. Silas came up to me and said 'hi.' I came in and started doing art and really got into it...I felt like he was somebody I could really talk to." Several months of paintings and drawings later Hodges is good...really good. Her work was featured in the Youth Art Gallery at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, along with other Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta members. "They didn't recognize her art based on her struggles. They didn't know. They just recognized her work," said Clark. "I never really thought that I could do anything, but when I started doing art I got a lot of compliments. All of a sudden my art was at the airport...things I never thought would happen," said Hodges. "Art is about acceptance. It’s about real diversity," said Clark. "People think that diversity is just skin tone. Diversity is way deeper than that."
Most of Nkwocha's original music partners have gone off to college, but he continues to practice his craft after school at the LBGC. "I've been involved here since I was ten. I just love coming here everyday," he said. Nkwocha and several other current and past members of the LBGC formed a group called Never Back Down, now NBD Music Group. "I do more than just make music. I produce videos, write, and do skits, film engineering, edit and production. I do the whole thing. I decided to teach myself how to do it...and I'm pretty amazing at it," he said. NBD Music Group has 11 members who all hope to break into the music business. "I watched them grow. When they first came in, some of them couldn’t rap at all," said Clark. "They had a lot of initiative and they are really good now. They taught me how to produce better."
Basking in the success of the program is the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club senior executive director Rory Johnson. A product of the Boys & Girls club in Chicago, he has seen the Lawrenceville club go through many changes in his 14 years there. "I can say it’s truly priceless," said Johnson. I now have people who were here as kids now bringing their children here. I get to see another generation."
The kids credit the club for putting them on the right path. "It really made me the person that I am today. It's brought out talents that I never knew I had and helped me mature," said Nkwocha. His message to other kids: dare to be great. "They say that your brain quits a hundred times before your body does, so work hard all the time and never give up," Nkwocha said. "Coming here, I’ve gotten so much happier. I talk to people now. I have friends here. My life is just a lot better," said Hodges. "Mr. Silas really got me to live. It's not just him but all the staff here."
For Clark, it's a joy to pour his love for music and the arts into the students. "Teens are at a very awkward stage in their lives, transitioning from being a child to an adult. If I can be a part of helping a child blossom into a powerful young woman or man, that's a great honor," said Clark. "At the end of the day, they can take pride and say that's my work."