Ann Denny is a busy woman. She operates a translation service. She’s in a band. She performs in a women’s comedy troupe and she’s developing a web series for Anna Danova, her comic alter ego.
So it’s not surprising that the non-profit organization she runs with her husband Ryan Veltmeyer — oh, yeah, she does that too — is also a multi-tasker.
The Youth Art Connection offers a variety of programs, all designed to “help people find their passions,” explains the 34-year-old, classically trained singer.
“YAC brings local artists into existing organizations. We turn passion into creative projects and occasionally creative projects into careers.”
That process was evident on a recent Monday afternoon at the North-End Community Health Centre. Youth Art was “animating” contact between Hope Blooms, the kids who make and sell salad dressing from herbs grown at the Brunswick Street Garden, and the somewhat older ladies of the North End Walkers.
A bunch of boys in Mad Trapper hats and chefs’ smocks were making chili in the centre’s open kitchen. Several women were trying to fix the wonky tension of kids’ knitting projects. A 12-year-old boy was experimenting on an electric piano while a girl of about the same age was reading from one of many novels she is writing.
In the middle of this creative chaos, a young man named Cavell Holland was teaching three kids a hip-hop dance routine.
“He’s a great example of how YAC works,” says Denny. “Cavell’s a youth who’s living his passion, a creative entrepreneur.
“He started as a participant in one of our programs. Now he’s doing business administration at (Nova Scotia Community College). It’s so exciting that I can hire him to come and teach here.”
And he’s not alone.
Thanks to Youth Art’s programming, “we have about a dozen Cavells.”
The key to the organization’s success is its “asset-based approach.”
Kids in community projects are often defined by their problems. They’re “at-risk” or have learning disabilities or behavioural issues. At Youth Art, they’re defined by their positive attributes.
“We meet them as creative individuals. We don’t limit who they are. We help them create their sense of self as artists.”
Denny sees that happening in Project Sing, the weekly program she operates out of J. L. Ilsley High School. In co-operation with the school’s music teacher, Youth Art offers free voice lessons for youth who couldn’t otherwise afford them. While the project regularly brings in 20 to 30 kids, its reach is much broader.
“There are different levels of engagement. Some come for the pizza. Some for the hip-hop music,” she says. “We slowly develop those relationships. Kids see an older sister or brother performing at an assembly and it gives them a goal. In that way, we’re reaching thousands of youth.”
Participants of Project Sing will soon be taking PanJam, their two-hour concert, to Acadian, Mi’kmaq and African-Canadian communities throughout Nova Scotia. They’re also working on the much anticipated Spryfield: The Musical.
The artists who facilitate Youth Art programs have inspired many young people, but it’s not a one-way street.
“As an artist, it’s easy to get disconnected from our community, too lost in our own creations,” Denny says. “Helping other people find their passion really ignites our own.”
Vicki Grant is a screenwriter and the author of 12 young adult novels.