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Photo of children making art in San Pedro California

“The arts contribute to so many areas of a students education,” says Stephanie V., Art to Grow On parent, board member, and school representative. “Art builds towards the whole person, not just reading, writing, math and testing.”

For thirty years, Art to Grow On (ATGO) has encouraged young minds to think outside the box and let their creativity shine. Organized by more than 150 parents and community volunteer docents, this local nonprofit brings artistic experiences to more than 8,000 school children, kindergarten through eighth grade, in 17 public and private schools in San Pedro, Lomita, and Rancho Palos Verdes.

The ATGO program consists of five different projects yearly, using a variety of materials, techniques, and subject matters. From watercolor realism to abstract sculpture, students are taught in a judgment-free and grade-free space. “The students are free to create, there is no right or wrong, no grade,” says Cindy Donnelly, ATGO docent at Mary Star of the Sea Elementary School. “It is always interesting to see that for some students, this is a time for them to shine, and for others, it is quite difficult to get over the fear of not ‘doing it right.’ Without this program, some students might never have an opportunity for this type of creative expression.”

Although arts education is known to be an integral part of a young student’s learning evolution and provides a multitude of benefits, it also unfortunately often falls victim to budget cuts. “The arts are usually the first area to leave the classroom, yet the arts are vital to molding the complete person,” says Stephanie. In hopes to continue involvement within schools, Art to Grow On keeps the costs of projects to just only under $1.50 per student. “Despite deep cuts to schools, increasing restrictions on fundraising by the district, and the generational changes in views on volunteering, ATGO persists as a beloved program in the community,” says Laura Helm, executive chair.

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In addition to adapting to evolving school budgets, Art to Grow On has continued to thrive because of the generous time and support of its volunteers and docents. The lifeline of the program, volunteers are not required to be professional artists, however passion for the arts is obviously a plus. Docents meet at the United Methodist Church in San Pedro five times a year for special training sessions to become familiar and hands-on with the upcoming planned art project. It’s clear that students are not the only ones who benefit from this program, but also the docents themselves. In an example of how ATGO is mutually rewarding, Helm recalls a touching and memorable moment, saying, “While taking care of some business in the office at Park Western Elementary, a young boy, known for being very active and somewhat distracted, ran up to me and declared loudly, ‘You’re the art lady!’ He threw his arms around my legs and hugged me hard. I knew that child would face challenges in his life and I like to think I gave him some small tools to face them.”

Volunteers of ATGO see firsthand the difference they’re making in the lives on students, and the pride they feel in creating something all their own. “Recently, we did a project based on the work of Jackson Pollock, which is pretty abstract and modern,” says Donnelly. “One first grader was working hard, splattering different colored paint on his paper and he announced to me and the class that this was ‘real art,’ which made me smile.”

The next thirty years and beyond are a blank canvas and ATGO hopes to continue its mission, as well as welcome new faces to their team. “Our hopes are that the students who enjoy and benefit from ATGO will in turn, volunteer to teach art to their children in the future,” says Stephanie. “San Pedro is a town full of the richness of local artists and creative thinkers. Let’s continue to provide and enhance art and artists in San Pedro.”

For more information on Art to Grow On, including volunteer inquiries, email chairperson@arttogrowon.com, and as well as visit their website at arttogrowon.com.

photo of Caitlyn Piercy

Caitlyn Piercy

Associate Editor, San Pedro Today

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