:: More than 20 years ago, Leigh Curran moved from the Big Apple to the West Coast, and brought along a desire to give back to her new community. In 1992, she opened the Virginia Avenue Project (VAP), a free after-school performing arts and arts mentoring program, in Santa Monica, California.
"I wanted to do something that had meaning, and the Virginia Avenue Project allowed me to share what I've been artistically practicing all these years for a greater reason," said Curran, who had previously worked at the 52nd Street Project in New York City. "We hold the basic principles that the arts can help kids think creatively, critically, and courageously about what they want to do with their lives. Not turning them all into artists, necessarily, but helping them use all of themselves to make important life choices."
Working out of the youth center at the Santa Monica Police Activities League, VAP provides its students with a safe after-school space as they develop their creative-thinking skills and learn new ways to express themselves. Programming is divided into core classes, located at the activities league, as well as outreach efforts that sends volunteers into several Los Angeles area schools, where students are often struggling with learning disabilities or difficult financial circumstances. VAP's current core classes serve nearly 40 students while the outreach programs reaches an additional 360 children. For many VAP students, these programs are often their only access point to the arts.
While both the core and outreach programs focus on writing and the performing arts, VAP also engages students in photography, video arts, poetry, and a tutoring program—Smart Partners—that helps VAP students with their coursework or in preparing for college admissions. VAP students join the organization as early as six years old and are encouraged to remain engaged through high school. Since the organization opened in 1992, 100 percent of VAP students have graduated from high school, and 95 percent have enrolled in college. Of these students, 98 percent are the first in their families to go on to higher education.
But the organization's influence extends beyond its own students. "One of the beautiful things about the program is we're not just exposing the children to the arts but also their families," said Kent Wallace-Meggs, VAP's executive director. "Often times it's the first introduction for their entire family and their friends to the arts. It has a far-reaching effect."