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Editor’s note: This is the first in a 10-part series looking at the agencies that were awarded grant funds by the SHARE Foundation as the first partners in the new Violence Intervention Plan. Each installment, which will run on Wednesdays and Sundays through the end of March, will look at a different agency, what was funded by the grant and how it will help address crime and violence in the community.

The SHARE Foundation provided more than $280,000 to 10 local nonprofit groups to tackle growing crime rates and increasing violence for their Violence Intervention Plan.

South Arkansas Arts Center was granted $20,000 to expand after-school art classes to children who normally wouldn’t benefit from SAAC programs.

Typically the classes cost $125 a semester, “and for a lot of families that’s just not money they can spare,” said Laura Allen, SAAC executive director.

“Our scholarships are basically open to anyone with financial need,” Allen said. “The recommendations come from a teacher, counselor or someone at the Boys & Girls Club.”

The spring semester classes began on Jan. 8 and last 12 weeks. Classes are offered to children of all ages from pre-K through high school.

The center has always had a small scholarship program, but the program was only able to assist around 15 kids each semester. With the grant money, the arts center can now have more than 50 kids in the program this semester.

The classes include visual art, graphic arts, glee club, drama, ballet, art in Spanish and voice and piano lessons. Most of the classes are offered to all grade levels, and students are grouped according to their ages.

The glee club is one class of all ages because for the class to work, there has to be a large group “and they all sing together because it’s just cooler that way,” Allen said.

Art in Spanish is only offered to pre-K through fourth grade and is taught by Maria Villeges. The students learn everything about art in Spanish, including colors and what they are painting.

In drama, the second through eighth-graders are working on “Disney’s The Aristocats, KIDS.” The older students work on monologues and different exercises they can use to audition for college scholarships.

On April 13-14, there will be a showcase featuring all of the work the students have completed. The ballet students well perform a recital, there will be an art show, a voice and piano recital and glee club will perform songs.

On April 20-21, the second through eighth-graders will perform the “Disney’s The Aristocats, KIDS” play.

“What we have found over the years is that those classes teach them so much more than just how to paint or how to draw,” Allen said. “It teaches them empathy because they learn how to work in a group. They learn how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and the relationships they build with the other kids and teachers are amazing and last a long time.”

And that’s how the classes fit into the SHARE Foundation’s new Violence Intervention Plan, which focuses on six categories that are considered community involvement and family support. SAAC applied for grant funding under the category of “mentoring and role models” guidelines.

“Our theory is our teachers are building a relationship with these kids,” Allen said. “Even though they’re not necessarily talking about their home life for an hour every week, they’re making these bonds and becoming another trusted adult in their life.”

Allen said she believes the skills that kids learn from these classes will make them more successful adults, and she said many parents have expressed how much their kids enjoy the classes.

“They’re more excited to go to school on the days that they know they have art in the afternoon,” she said.”It’s really gratifying to be able to open that up to kids who might not have had it otherwise.”

Allen said her idea was to start small this semester, ramp up during the summer and finish strong in the fall, but the interest has been overwhelming.

“We’re just really excited,” she said. “It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have the money to do it.”

The scholarships will continue to be offered through the summer and fall semesters, and the center is hoping to expand the classes to reach even more children in Union County.

Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or krigdon@eldoradonews.com.

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