Sabrina Thompson, The Observer

Extracurricular activities can keep young people out of trouble. Having something to do when not in classes and something to channel a child’s passion into is vital to at-risk youth.

The Union County Juvenile Department’s art program is an effort to help these kids, and La Grande’s Cook Memorial Library is currently displaying some of the art they have made.

Cook Memorial Library has been showing a variety of artwork for several years, created by local artists. These displays rotate every three months.

“We wanted to support local artists and collaborate with a local established youth program,” the library’s teen services coordinator, Celine Vandervlugt, said.

The program provides students ages 11-18 a place at Art Center East where they can come to create as an outlet. The program was founded and is run by diversion counselor Theo Miller.

“About 90% of the youth that come to our department don’t have extracurriculars,” Miller said. “Having some kind of recreation helps provide structure.”

Studies by various universities and government bodies, such as the University of Florida, University of California Los Angeles, University of York, Louisiana State University and the National Endowment for the Arts have all found evidence supporting this idea that art can help at-risk kids.

The artwork on display at the library were selected from the last four art shows that Miller has done with ACE. All of the work was done by students found to be at-risk or already part of the juvenile criminal justice system. The assignments for these particular pieces of art are various and open-ended, which also allows for conversation.

“We discuss how viewing the outside world through an artistic lens begs us to examine, and question, our inner lives,” Miller said in an explanation of the pieces displayed next to the art.

Miller said that even though the art program can’t change or take away the things that put these students at-risk, they can add activities that will help keep them out of trouble by providing them with a healthy outlet for their thoughts and emotions.

Students can be referred to this program through multiple services, and it is a resource for kids who are having difficulties in life. Though it is open to the public, participants are screened to make sure the program is being utilized by those it is intended for. Also, according to Miller, mixing those who are considered at-risk with those who are not can have a negative effect on those who aren’t having issues.

According to Union County Juvenile Department Director Benjamin Morgan, kids who are part of the department’s programs generally have been referred through law enforcement and have gotten in trouble before. Morgan said the department strives to provide opportunities for building resilience. By having the art program kids can put their energy and focus on positive activities.

“The old school model was all about accountability and giving the kids hours of community service,” Morgan said. “Research found that it was overburdening the kids, and the kids who are doing well are the ones with healthy outlets.”