In mid-March of 2020, Waterville Creates—like countless other arts organizations across the country—closed its doors and suspended its in-person programming due to COVID-19. We were still deeply committed to providing accessible arts experiences for our community members and immediately began brainstorming ways that we could safely reach our audience during a pandemic. Through thoughtful and detailed conversations with community partners like the Colby College Museum of Art and art teachers from the Waterville Public School system, we developed Art Kits for All, an innovative program designed to get free art supplies and instructions into the hands of families.

While Art Kits for All originated as a creative way to fulfill WC’s mission to support and promote high-quality, accessible art experiences, the program evolved in a way that was unexpected, rapid, and magical as we expanded our program partners to include new and non-traditional collaborators like the Family Violence Project (FVP) and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP). With these community partners we were able to develop new distribution methods and see firsthand the tremendous impact that these kits could have on their recipients.

One of our largest distribution partners was the Alfond Youth and Community Center, where we gave out the kits along with their existing community meal program. In a more targeted approach, KVCAP distributed the art kits as part of their ongoing parenting classes. These kits were not just experienced as an art activity, but as a creative pathway for young parents to connect with their children in fun and meaningful ways. The art kits were also distributed at the local homeless shelter and later on, the art kits were coupled with a literacy initiative, and the Waterville Public Library became a key partner assisting as a distribution center. To date we have circulated over 5,000 art kits to the community.

With the arrival of 2021, the project shifted to serve more specific populations. As we began thinking about our participation in the Freedom & Captivity project, we recognized the restorative and curative effect the art kits could have for an incarcerated population and their families. We gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from our work with KVCAP and the associated parenting classes. The art projects created calm and relaxation for many of the parents and children. Parents had a sense of accomplishment and pride and didn’t have to worry about the supplies or expenses associated with creating something special.

Using these experiences as a model, we designed a specific kit for incarcerated parents and their children. The kits will be available in visiting room areas, with the goal of creating an atmosphere of playfulness while providing moments of joy and restoration for families. The kit is called “The Road Ahead,” and provides a creative exercise of looking forward for both parents and their families. Participants draw a rectangular windshield shape into which they place a road that disappears into the distance. The road represents what parents and children are looking forward to as a family. Together they will incorporate images and words to describe the types of experiences they seek for their collective future. For example, someone might include a dog or another favorite animal along the road that represents joy to a family, or one may include a picture of a favorite meal that they plan to share. The kit also includes the book What the Road Said by Cleo Wade and other materials like markers, stickers, gel pens, and washi tape to spark creativity and ideas.

We currently have a sign-up for prisoners in the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center and the Maine Correctional Center located in Windham, with art kits for 100 families. These kits are also available to the Department of Corrections’ prison guards and their families.

Our hope is that by bringing a simple, enjoyable, creative project into spaces that can be emotionally difficult, these kits will inspire healthy connections for families and encourage participants to envision a positive future for themselves and their loved ones.

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The mission of Waterville Creates is arts experiences for all. We are building a thriving, connected, and equitable community through shared experiences in the arts. By presenting arts programming by, with, and for our community, we promote growth and well-being.

Image at top: Waterville Creates, Art Kit.