Michelle Obama: Honors After-School arts projects that inspire youth

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In Muqqatum, a community on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, students at Alwan wa Awtar (Colors and Strings) can participate in a wide range of after-school and summer arts activities in the performing, visual and literary arts. In Campeche, Mexico, children with Down syndrome attend two dance workshops each week to learn traditional and contemporary dances at La Chácara Children’s Culture Center. In China’s Sichuan province, children from low-income families train in opera, dance and the visual arts at Green Path of Art, which provides its students with academic and financial assistance.

These were among the 19 after-school programs to which first lady Michelle Obama presented a 2009 Coming Up Taller Award in a White House ceremony November 4.

“Each of your programs is using achievement in the arts as a bridge to achievement in life,” said Mrs. Obama, the honorary chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), which sponsors the Coming Up Taller awards in partnership with three federal agencies.

“You affirm that their contributions are valuable, and their success matters to all of us. You help them see beyond the circumstances of their lives to the world of possibility that awaits them. And for that, we honor you.”

Recipients of the Coming Up Taller Awards, the nation’s honor for after-school arts and humanities programs for underserved children, receive $10,000 each.

“This year’s Coming Up Taller Awardees exemplify how arts and humanities programs outside of the school setting can impact on the lives of our young people,” said Margo Lion, PCAH co-chairman. “By exciting imaginations and providing opportunities for self-expression through the disciplines of theater, dance, music and literature, these exceptional projects offer their participants windows on possibility and a belief in a more positive future.”

Egypt’s Alwan wa Awtar, a nonprofit organization established in 2005, exposes impoverished youth to art, workshops and field trips to museums, concerts and exchange programs and tries to inspire them to embark on their own voyages of artistic self-discovery.

Created in 1998, La Chácara Children’s Cultural Center offers organized training spanning the creative arts to more than 20,000 children each year, but it was honored at the ceremony for its dance group Estrellas con Ángel (Stars with Angel), which enables disadvantaged youth with a specific disability, Down syndrome, to get a taste of the performing arts.

China’s Green Path of Art over its 10-year existence has helped more than 2,000 young people discover and develop their creative potential. After the devastating 2008 earthquake, program participants offered free performances to young people.

The PCAH focuses on arts and humanities education, cultural diplomacy and economic revitalization through the arts and humanities. The committee includes both government officials and private individuals. It works primarily with the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to connect the people of the United States with each other and with the rest of the world through dance, music, literature, painting, sculpture, and heritage and cultural tourism.

The name for the award, Coming Up Taller, comes from a statement by Willie Reale, founder of New York City’s 52nd Street Project, which enables young people to create original theater works. “There is no way to fast forward and know how the kids will look back on this,” he said, “but I have seen the joy in their eyes and have heard it in their voices and I have watched them take a bow and come up taller.”

The 15 U.S. after-school programs represent a wide variety of settings, from the rural to the inner city, and from libraries and museums to juvenile detention centers.

The Harmony Project in Los Angeles, for example, provides intensive, year-round instruction on eight instruments, as well as choir and orchestra programs, to inner-city children from low-income families.

The Keshet Dance Company’s Outreach Program with Incarcerated Youth uses dance to teach literacy, math and conflict-resolution skills to 250 youths at the New Mexico state juvenile detention center.

In rural West Virginia, the Old Brick Playhouse provides apprenticeships to 83 students who, through theater, learn collaboration, leadership, problem solving, character development and self-esteem.

“These awards remind us of what the power of arts and music and dance can do in the lives of our young people,” Mrs. Obama said.

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