Room for change

Alternative students breathe life into office space

Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2005


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  Freshman Chris Allen puts some finishing touches around the artwork. The art was inspired by painter Donna Dewberry. Photo by Layton Ehmke

Kenai Alternative High School art teacher Vickie Roney gives some pointers on painting roses to two of her students, Daniel Chapman and Sarah Campbell, who are painting a pastoral mural with other art students in the office of Children's Services waiting room Monday afternoon. The class has met daily for four weeks to contribute to the work.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

Sixteen Kenai Alternative High School students are in their fourth week of painting a mural to liven up the waiting-room walls in the state Office of Children's Services in Kenai. The blank pale yellow room that once welcomed families and children already has begun to live up to its role of "welcoming" as the mural has progressed.

The room before the mural, according to the students and OCS staff, was "institutional." Junior Charlene Sandifer said the room was ugly and depressing. The pale yellow walls are something typical of uniform, state-run facilities, and in the eyes of many not well designed with children in mind.

"It made you feel like you were locked up," Sandifer said. "There was nothing to look at." Junior Cody Villa said the room now has life.

"A few strokes of the brush made a difference. It's amazing," he said.

The professionals agree.

Thirty-year veteran of OCS Mari Kae Huckabay said the room was "not a very happy place" for kids. The office had significant challenges in getting the state to go along with the plan. Huckabay suspects the bureaucrats didn't know how cool the project was going to be.

"It's so much warmer in there than before, when it felt like you were walking into a jailhouse cold and unfriendly," Huckabay said. "When you walk in you see the tree. Some of the things in there are so real looking."


Freshman Chris Allen puts some finishing touches around the artwork. The art was inspired by painter Donna Dewberry.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

Huckabay said she has seen a change in the attitudes of parents and children who use the room.

"They feel more relaxed."

Social Services Associate Patti Truesdell said the students were quite nervous before they had even visited the room. They were self-conscious about the permanency of their work.

"Once they saw the room, they weren't worried anymore. The kids have been getting real creative," she said. "We bring them cookies and food to keep them excited about working."

Truesdell enlisted the help of school art teacher Vicky Roney and principal Greg Wilbanks to get the project rolling. Truesdell said the class has not only given the office a relaxing and interesting mural, they have brought their personal warmth as well.

"They have been a bright spot in our day. They've been respectful and remarkable. They are job-proof positive," she said.

Roney said this was an opportunity to get the class focused on continuity and style of their work. They focused primarily on a pastoral environment that would encourage a relaxing atmosphere for children and families dealing with various issues. More so, Roney said this was a chance for students to get give something back to the community.

"There are not enough opportunities for young people to give back to the community. Some of these kids working on this might have even been clients of child services at some point," she said.

That direct giving back to the community is something Roney said needs to happen more often.

Some of the young artists left behind hidden clues within the mural for children to find as they wait in the custody of the state, something to take their minds off their sometimes unnerving situations.

"There are people's initials hidden in some of the art and little ladybugs the kids can search for," sophomore Daniel Chapman said.

The class worked 90 minutes per day, most days of a four-week period, which most of the students agreed had gone by quickly. This may be due in part to the charity of OCS staff members who regularly supplied the art crew with cupcakes and cookies —as well as brushes and paints with the help of a local business that chipped in on the project.

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