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Creating meaningful youth mentorship ― it's at the heart of MCG Youth & Arts

November 16, 2020 1:00 pm

“I’m great, now that I’m here,” That was the response given to Claira Heitzenrater,

an MCG Youth & Arts Teaching Artist, after she asked one of her students how

they were feeling.


For many students in and around the Pittsburgh region, MCG Youth & Arts

(MCGYA) is more than just an after-school arts education program, it’s a peaceful

escape, a sanctuary of hope.


MCGYA is designed to open the creative potential of youth through mentorship and

art enrichment activities. According to Manchester Bidwell Corporation’s

2018-2019 Annual Report, 96% of their seniors pursued higher education and

100% of them graduated on time. This goes to show that learning the arts at

MCGYA connects students with a world of ideas and aspirations for life,

higher education and careers.


“This is a place where growth happens. We help students to see the world in a

completely different lens than what they’re used to seeing,” says Heitzenrater.


MCGYA has been in operation for over 50 years and relies strongly on

in-person connections, field trips, college campus visits and hands-on art enrichment

activities. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it completely changed how

MCGYA conducted its programming. Despite this, they’ve continued to create

lasting and beneficial relationships between youth and their teaching artists,

even while apart, through virtual offerings.


“We’re really glad to be still offering classes. Although we would obviously love to

physically interact with them,” says Heitzenrater, “we’re still there for them online

because creating art and having a mentor are both really important to them.”


The Powerful Fusion of Arts Learning and Mentorship


In both fields of arts learning and mentorship, there’s been extensive work done to independently demonstrate the benefits of both practices. But what happens when they fuse together?


It’s no secret that art inspires kids to excel both in and outside of the classroom. According to Americans for the Arts, a student involved in the arts is 4 times more likely to be recognized for their academic achievement. Art also helps students stay in school, increases their motivation, improves their attitudes and attendance and improves academic performance.


Every day, MCGYA’s teaching artists work closely with their students in several artistic disciplines including ceramic, digital, design and photography.


Youth development research demonstrates that youth benefit from close, caring relationships with adults who serve as positive role models.


A five-year study sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada found that children with mentors were more confident and had fewer behavioral problems.

“The kids are 100% the best aspect of my job. We get to know them on a personal level, and we go above and beyond just teaching them art,” says Heitzenrater, “We care about their welfare and so we help them in any way that we can.”


MCGYA makes it a point to note that they do not call their staff ‘art teachers,’ but rather, ‘teaching artists’ because they are active artists and experts in their artistic medium. This means there’s a tremendous difference in the implementation of their instruction.

“The teaching artists inspire us to work harder because we see them working so hard in and outside the studios,” says Bina Guo, a former MCGYA student, “It makes me feel like if I can work just as hard as they are, maybe I can be half as good as them.”


As a teaching artist, they are able to share information about their own career path and provide guidance, motivation and role modeling to their students. They are also able to easily connect students with contacts in their fields.

“Being a practicing artist and an educator makes me well-rounded. It’s important for me to be as knowledgeable and experienced as possible,” says Heitzenrater.

The Teaching Artist Guild states that, “Teaching Artists have the combination of skill, passion and experience to bring about small and large scale social change.”

Heitzenrater, who works in the design studio, agrees with that statement and can recall several instances where her students have expressed that creating art at MCGYA has helped them to destress, develop their voice and speak out about societal issues.


For Alexis Epondulan, another former MCGYA student, creating art at MCGYA helped her to adjust to American culture and aided her in learning the English language. Epondulan is from the Philippines and believes that attending MCGYA helped her to become confident and find new friends.


In a recent promotional video for MCGYA’s after-school program, Epondulan also stated that while in the MCGYA photography studio, she felt that she could communicate through the lens of her camera when she couldn’t find the words to express how she was feeling.


Mentorship is a Cure


MCGYA is housed under the Manchester Bidwell Corporation affiliate, Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG).


MCG was founded in 1968 by Bill Strickland while he was still in college. This was also the same year that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.


In Strickland’s autobiography titled, “Make the Impossible Possible,” he writes, “My neighborhood of Manchester was suffering from racial strife. Homes were in flames; riot cops and armed National Guard troops patrolled the streets.”


Strickland goes on to say that in the middle of all of the chaos, there were a lot of terrified kids. He wanted to do something for those kids because he saw his younger self in them.


“I knew what they needed,” he writes, “a safe, sane, quiet environment where they could escape the madness that reigned in the streets.”


“All I knew was clay,” Strickland goes on to say. He would heal the world with clay.


Strickland would not have opened MCG if his life hadn’t been changed by his mentor, high-school art teacher Frank Ross.


Ross mentored Strickland throughout his teenage years. He impressed upon Strickland the powers of art, education and community and even helped him obtain entrance to the University of Pittsburgh, of which he now sits on the board of.


Strickland named the program MCG because he admired the European guild system, in which masters passed on their skills and knowledge to young apprentices – just as Ross did for him and he hoped he would do for others in his community.


“We’re replicating that same relationship to this day with our students,” says Heitzenrater.


MCG was originally just an after-school ceramics program for the disadvantaged youth of his neighborhood, and now the program has expanded to include more art studios as well as a jazz division.


In Strickland’s own words, mentorship in a positive environment is the cure to the cycle of poverty. It can heal a broken community and a broken mind of a lost child.


MCGYA believes that sentiment as well. That’s why the importance of mentorship and arts education is intricately threaded into their mission.


The powerful fusion of both practices is the driving force behind a child walking through their doors, feeling great, now that they’re there.

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