Young Futures

Young Futures Free Cone Day event

From the paint-your-own-cone art activity during Free Cone Day. / photo courtesy of Young Futures

By Jaya Sundaresh

A little boy is painting a picture of an ice cream cone outside the Ben & Jerry's on Madison Ave in Albany during Free Cone Day; he's covered it all -- cone and ice cream both -- in bold, energetic black paint.

"Hey, he envisioned what he wanted, he formulated a plan, and he successfully executed it," says Young Futures founder James Mitchell, grinning.

Young Futures is an Albany organization dedicated to bringing free arts education to kids, especially those neighborhoods where that sort of opportunity can be hard to find.

Mitchell is relentlessly positive about the art that the kids (and some adults) are creating while they wait in line for a free ice cream cone. Meanwhile, Young Futures (YF) co-founder Matthew Blackman doles out high fives to the younger and older kids alike, coaxing a pre-teen to shed his reserve and really slap the hell out of Blackman's hand.

"With children, it's really easy to create smiles," says Mitchell. "They're contagious."

YF's primary mission is to bring free arts education to kids in the Capital Region, with a specific focus on providing resources to children from minority communities. In an age where arts education is being rationed out to poor kids in order to focus on the topics like reading, math, and writing, YF's programming is an important addition.

Albany Barn exterior
The Albany Barn hosts Young Futures classes.

There's another goal, though: Mitchell and Blackman are committed to improving the mental health of minority youth in the region.

"Mental health in [the African-American] community is the elephant in the room," says Blackman. And YF sees a direct correlation between how many creative outlets a kid has and the quality of their mental health. They're not doctors, but they've seen firsthand the difference that art can play in a child's life.

A few years ago, Mitchell and Blackman organized the Art Evolution project for kids ages 9 to 14 at the Sunnyside Center in Troy. The program lasted two months and YF only had the students students for a few hours each week. But even so Mitchell says they saw a real improvement in the students' affect and outlook on life over that time.

"They went from these strangers who pulled their hats and hoodies over their heads to children begging us to come back."

What made the difference?

"Consistency," says Mitchell. Showing up, being consistent presences in the lives of children -- that's what did it.

Mitchell and Blackman started working together in 2011, operating out of the back of their cars. At first, it was a general service organization, handing out coats to people on the streets they saw in need during Hurricane Sandy. Then came a partnership with Mission Accomplished Transition Services' Carmen Duncan, helping out with business suit collection and distribution for a professional clothes drive. After that, Mitchell and Blackman decided to focus on helping children, and the art education evolved from there.

Their current partnership with Albany Barn started a year ago when they began offering free art programming for kids, including regular classes on Monday evenings. A "paint-and-sip" event for kids on a Saturday this past February was especially popular. There are now plans in the works to partner with Youth FX and its founder, Bhawin Suchak, to provide training in videography once a month.

And at least once a month, Blackman makes sure there's a mental health professional available for the kids to talk to -- a young professional from the community, because YF wants someone who looks like the kids, so the children will better relate to them.

YF manages to do all of this because of donations and the fundraisers they continuously throw. They are establishing 501(c)3 status later this year, but for now operate under the nonprofit umbrella of Albany Barn.

Mitchell and Blackman welcome any interested parents to get in contact with YF regarding their Monday evening classes. The classes start at 6:30 pm each Monday at Albany Barn at 56 2nd Street in Albany. The classes can serve about 16 children ages 6-12.

Jaya Sundaresh is a writer and journalist who lives in the Capital Region. She can be found most evenings working on her first novel at Arthur's Market in Schenectady.
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April 12 6:05 pm: This post has been edited to correct the name of the institution that hosted the Art Evolution project, and the spelling of Matthew Blackman's name.

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