NEWPORT, Ky. — A few dozen children and adults gathered outside Newport Middle School one afternoon this week to celebrate the completion of the school's colorful, new murals.
Some adults made speeches, and all the grownups applauded for the students who worked on the murals. The kids got certificates, had fruit juice and cupcakes and pointed out the parts they helped paint.
But while the spotlight was on the freshly finished artwork, the celebration was about something more: Helping kids experiencing homelessness understand they have the power to create, give back and be part of something bigger than themselves or their struggles.
That was the whole point of Club Diversity Wildcats, an after-school program at Newport Intermediate School. The program launched in January as a partnership between Newport Independent Schools and UpSpring, a Cincinnati nonprofit that provides educational enrichment for Greater Cincinnati children experiencing homeless.
"Art is a powerful tool for changing lives," said Linda Schneider-Houghton, the lead artist for the Diversity Wildcats' mural project. "My goal is for these kids to come back here with their own children one day and for it to give them self-esteem for the rest of their lives."
The goal of the after-school program was similar. Although it only lasted a few months, the program was packed with lessons about people and places all around the world, different cultures and — culminating with the mural project — how even kids without a lot of money can make a difference in their communities.
The club's members worked with some students who weren't part of Diversity Wildcats and with adult volunteers from BB&T bank, which chose the project as a focus for its local volunteer efforts.
"It brings a lot of joy to this place," 10-year-old Patience said of the murals. She's a Diversity Wildcats member who will be a sixth-grader at Newport Middle School next year.
"I think the club was a good idea to put together," she said. "They picked the right people to do it. People who would want to do the work and not just sit and play."
Patience painted roses on one mural because to her those flowers symbolized "joy and happiness and loving times," she said. She also helped paint a panel featuring the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a concrete bench that forms a ring around landscaping in front of the school's main entrance.
'Learning From Mistakes'
The pictures of different places and landmarks from around the world represent all the different places the Diversity Wildcats studied and discussion. There's even a panel depicting the Big Mac Bridge in Newport.
Schneider-Houghton said the adult volunteers who worked with the students on the project were afraid to paint the detailed silhouettes on the concrete rings. But the students were eager to help, she said, and did a great job.
Ross Geiger, a BB&T vice president based at the bank's Fort Mitchell office, said about 20 BB&T employees helped the students paint the murals and plant new landscaping at the school's entrance.
The volunteering is part of the company's "Lighthouse Project," where each of the bank's regional offices gets to vote on a local nonprofit to help.
The bank's employees chose UpSpring because the organization works to help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty through education, Geiger said.
The goals of Club Diversity Wildcats were particularly compelling, he said.
"A lot of the kids are used to being served," he said. "This is teaching them to give back."
The mural project taught other valuable lessons, too.
"I liked learning from mistakes," said 11-year-old Mia, who also will be a sixth-grader at Newport Middle School next year. "I learned not to pick up too much paint on the brush, to clean the brush in between colors. And I learned to be a leader."
Schneider-Houghton praised Mia for her work on the project, saying Mia's flower designs were so good that other students used them, too.
Mia also helped paint two panels on the concrete bench. One features the Taj Mahal in India, and the other has the Statue of Liberty in New York.
"I was born in New York City," Mia said with a wide smile.
She lived there for eight years, Mia said, and has lived in Newport for two.
The kids who were members of Club Diversity Wildcats this year tend to move around a lot — sometimes within Newport, sometimes across the river to Ohio, sometimes farther.
Over these past four months, the after-school program was designed to give them a sense of belonging and stability.
The murals allowed them to make their mark at their new school before they even start going there — and should help give them a sense of belonging from day one.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.