If you bring the art, food and fun, the kids will come. That's the plan with a Big Car program that brings creativity and support to kids in areas where cultural enrichment isn't always the top priority.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday throughout June and July, members of Big Car travel by van into neighborhoods and apartment complexes to bring healthy snacks and cultural programming to Indy doorsteps. The initiative, called Fun Fleet, is a partnership with Indianapolis Public Library. Each week volunteers and staff plan short, one-hour activities and make them available to anyone interested.
"Some of these complexes are pretty isolated," Big Car Program Director, Anne Laker says, explaining that there' not a lot of walkability at some of the areas. "Not everyone has a car, and there's not a ton of cultural amenities already there. Big Car's mission is to bring art to people and bring people to art. In this case, we're definitely completing our mission."
The Fun Fleet serves as an extension of the library's bookmobile. At each location, kids line up with tote bags full of books to exchange for points, prizes and more books. While the kids meander through the library's converted RV, the Fun Fleet unloads its tables, markers, crayons, colored pencils, bags of apples, a canopy and folding chairs with the silent precision of a veteran ambulance team. Before long, kids of all ages begin to trickle toward the group, grinning with hands full of new reading material, temporary tattoos, mustache erasers and packets of Jelly Belly candies.
The Fun Fleet program kicked off last summer at a handful of apartment complexes on Indy's far Eastside. This summer, the program expanded, adding two new stops on the Eastside and a handful of additional neighborhoods surrounding International Marketplace, formerly Lafayette Square Mall. Each Fun Fleet crew is comprised of a leader, Tom Streit on the Westside and Jarrod Dortch on the Eastside, and a handful of additional volunteers.
"They call me the Eastside Ambassador," says Dortch, who also donates a significant amount of time to after-school programs through Community Alliance of the Far Eastside when he's not busy with his day job as an instructor at Ivy Tech in Muncie. Dortch lives near the neighborhoods along the Fun Fleet's route. "Sometimes I'll be at the grocery and I'll run into one of the kids from Fun Fleet," he says. "They usually remember me and say hi, which feels great."
Esteban Ortiz is the lone member of the Fun Fleet that works on both the East and Westside routes during the week that I visited. He came to Big Car as part of the Immigrant & Refugee Service Corps. IRSC works with organizations, local universities, faith-based charities and others to bridge gaps and collaborate more effectively with Indianapolis' immigrant population. Ortiz's skills as a bilingual interpreter come in handy. While most of the kids are capable of communicating in English, some prefer Spanish. The language barrier is more significant among the parents at the various stops, and more than once Esteban's skills have proven useful. He's also working on a graduate degree with a focus on conflict resolution.
Along with art supplies and snacks, the Fun Fleet also uses a Big Car mailbox that allows the participants to send drawings and notes to their counterparts across town.
At the end of August, there's going to be an art gallery at Big Car's new space in a largely empty strip mall off of 38th Street and Lafayette Road.
Creative Renewal & Relationships
I met the Fun Fleet crew there prior to embarking on its Westside route. That morning, Streit led a team of volunteers clearing overgrowth along a nearby creek, which they will convert into outdoor furniture. The new space is still a work-in-progress, with construction materials scattered around tables covered in pipe cleaner sculptures from another Big Car meeting. "We're just trying to plant a flag in communities where the arts are usually an afterthought," Streit says. With proper funding and access, Big Car could conceivably convert under-utilized commercial spaces into hubs of creative activity all over the city.
Minutes after arriving at Stratford Apartments, a boy named Barry rides in on a bike. It's his first time drawing with the Fun Fleet, but he's a regular at the bookmobile. He's saving library points to earn tickets to the State Fair next month. He recently moved to Indy from Walkerton, Indiana, to live with his mom. He sports a Walkerton soccer T-shirt, though he prefers baseball. Barry says he plays catcher, because he gets to wear his cap backward and a mask. But of more importance on this day is his gripe with apples (jokingly). "The reason I hate apples is there are fleas inside. See!" Barry says while sampling a snack.
"Those are seeds, dude." Streit replies to resounding laughter.
And such is the report Streit and the other volunteers have with the kids.
The apple is an example of the snacks Fun Fleet volunteers pass out, thanks to a partnership with Georgetown Market. It donates fruit and healthy granola bars.
"Maybe we can inspire kids to expand their palates and provide nutrition at the same time we're drawing and being creative," Laker says. "It's not the reason we're there, but it's a great enhancement ... and many of the kids ask if they can take one home to grandma or a little brother."
As I draw and eavesdrop on the Fun Fleet activities, my mind wanders toward the recent rise in violence that has dominated local headlines since the issue came to a boiling point over 4th of July weekend. I can't help but think that the Fun Fleet and like-minded initiatives are positioned on the frontlines of this fight to deter crime in our youth. That isn't to say the neighborhoods were hostile environments, not in the least. I mostly saw kids and families scrapping to get by with the limited resources at their disposal. The complexes were clean, often had new(ish) playground equipment and better manicured landscapes than many of the lawns in Fountain Square where I live.
"We'll see groups of kids where the older kid is the boss," Dortch says. "They're just running free. Sometimes you'll see a grandparent, but rarely. It's the Wild West. Every child for themselves out here."
Spanish Oaks is the lone exception to Dortch's description on the far Eastside. There, Big Car accommodates around 25 kids who stop by to draw and eat strawberries. Nearby, a group of five or six mothers converse in Spanish. 12-year-old Antonio clutches a copy of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars as he takes a seat at the picnic table. His family read the Spanish version together, but Antonio wants to read the English version before watching the movie. He's one of the kids that has returned to hang with Fun Fleet after getting acquainted last summer. "I come every week," he says. "It's nice. I like to draw and I can get books. The other libraries we have to drive to and we don't usually have time."
Among the many benefits of the program, one of the most promising for its future and that of its kid is that its organizers and volunteers are seeing some of the same faces from last year. "We're actually developing relationships, and kids are finding the opportunity to be creative, and they're starting to count on that," Laker says.