“Promises to children are sacred.” This mantra from my days as a KIPP teacher kept scrolling through my mind as I promised several dozen elementary school kids that they would absolutely all get to have one of the pieces of cake spread out on the table between us- after a short graduation ceremony. Fortunately, the cake was massive, so it was an easy promise to both make and keep. Plus, we were standing in the Carpenter Art Garden (CAG), where staff and volunteers have worked daily to build trust and create empowering relationships with the children in this Binghampton neighborhood. These kids had every reason to believe me.
When I first pulled up in front of the Carpenter Art Garden and the adjacent Purple House just before 3:00, my eye was drawn to a house on the other side of Carpenter Street with “CAG Bike Shop” painted on the front. As Megan Banaszek, the energetic program director for CAG, would explain during our quick tour of the block, the Bike Shop was just one of several lots on the street that had been transformed from blighted property to neighborhood asset.
For the first day of my volunteer odyssey, I got to see multiple aspects of the work CAG has been doing in this community, which is in the immediate vicinity of Cornerstone Prep elementary school and the large apartment complex where many of the students live. First, three teenage boys would be graduating from the bike repair program, which was the reason for both the gigantic cake and the ceremony. Next, the kids would decorate the multitude of bicycles housed in the Bike Shop in preparation for the afternoon’s culminating event: the first annual Christmas bike parade.
Over the course of the afternoon, I could see evidence that the kids who participated in the programs offered at the Carpenter Art Garden felt safe and nurtured there. They were open and confident with adults, even when talking to a stranger like me. Older children were clearly empowered to assume leadership in group activities. I observed them helping younger kids with their bikes and settling little squabbles that inevitably erupted during the afternoon. Everyone participated in the creative process of decorating their bikes and themselves for the parade.
I finished my afternoon in the Purple House by helping stuff hats and gloves into gift bags for all of the kids to receive at a Christmas party the following day. Just inside, a volunteer helped some teenagers prepare for the ACT. On the front porch, a group of middle schoolers waited to be picked up for a basketball game. As I wrapped up my time there, it occurred to me that what CAG offers to the neighborhood kids goes much deeper than arts-based programming and good winter hats. I was reminded that sometimes the best way to invest in your community is simply to create space for growth- be it creativity, leadership development, or building trust.
To learn more about the Carpenter Art Garden, visit www.carpenterartgarden.com.