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NoDa's Behailu Academy uses arts-based curriculum to help at-risk kids blossom

Charlotte community school looks for tutors, volunteers to supplement program

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It's a Friday evening in NoDa, and there's painting, poetry and live music happening. What sounds like just another night in the neighborhood isn't really. On this recent evening, it's children who are creating the art.

In the old Green Rice gallery building, around every turn, there are high school-aged young adults painting mountain landscapes, reciting spoken-word poetry, playing guitar riffs and writing verses to a hip-hop song. One sitting at a computer offers to play his beats to anyone who's willing to listen.

They are all students at Behailu Academy, a nonprofit community school with an arts-based curriculum. Alongside the kids are their mentors — Charlotte artists at the top of their game in their respective disciplines. The walls are decorated with art projects, murals and inspirational quotes. The atmosphere is fresh and exciting.

Engaging high-risk youth in high-quality arts was what Dee Dee Mills envisioned when she founded Behailu in 2012. The former media relations director for the Carolina Panthers says she'd always believed in the power of team sports to help economically disadvantaged teens, but when she saw a need for a way to reach children not athletically inclined, a community school for the arts was born. She named it after her Ethiopian son, whose name translates to "his strength overcame obstacles."

She partnered with executive director Camille Cushman, a former public school teacher with a Ph.D. who had extensively studied the use of dramatic arts in working with economically disadvantaged youth. The two opened the school in October to students from Garinger High School in east Charlotte.

"We chose to focus on only one school to differentiate ourselves from other programs reaching out to the whole city. We really wanted a community-based center," Cushman says. "We've built strong relationships with Garinger's faculty. We're really lucky they've been so open to us."

Students are lucky as well. Not only are they able to come learn a variety of arts at no cost, Behailu makes sure transportation issues don't prevent them from attending. The school's vans pick up students from Garinger and drop them off at their homes when class is over. Cushman admits it's one of their biggest operational costs, but says it's essential for access.

Starting next week, Behailu is adding middle-school students from Eastway.

The school is primarily financed with the help of donations. Cushman says the community has been very supportive. She cites as an example the Charlotte Barman's Fund, a group of bartenders who pool all their tips from one month's shift and donate them. The group called Behailu and asked for items they needed, then bought everything.

"I made them a huge list," Cushman says. "I thought they'd choose a few things, but they showed up with it all, even a new keyboard."

While financial support is key, Cushman says what Behailu really needs are volunteers, mostly academic tutors. One of their major goals is to increase academic performance. She says they are currently designing a curriculum that integrates the arts students are learning with math and science. They will focus on implementing this hybrid style of learning next year.

There are also volunteer opportunities for Friday night creative workshops. These can be one-time workshops or every other week.

"If you have an artistic skill you'd like to teach, we'll work with your schedule," Cushman says.

Students will show off what they've learned so far this year during the NoDa Studio Tour, happening May 3-4. During the tour, about 20 neighborhood artists' studios will open their doors to the public. Behailu will feature music performances and an art gallery display, and students will be there to talk about their work.

The presentation aspect is key because it illustrates how far many students have come since starting the program, which Cushman says is the most rewarding aspect of the work she does at Behailu.

"Seeing how much they've already grown in confidence is amazing," she says. "Many of them have faced tremendous obstacles like homelessness and being in and out of foster care. They started here somewhat shy and disconnected. Now they've blossomed and love being here."

She tells the story of a student who connected to her dance class with such passion, her mentor has now taken her to perform with several famous choreographers. Another student played the piano as a young child, but got negative reactions from his family so he quit. He came to Behailu with no dreams or direction, but now his passion for music has been re-ignited and he's researching jobs that would allow him to teach piano to others.

"People have always told them they couldn't achieve, and now the doors of opportunity are opening for them," Cushman says. "That is our greatest testimonial."

For more information, visit www.behailuacademy.org.

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