Reducing Crime Through Art

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DES MOINES, Iowa - In a small room, with a small staff, ArtForceIowa is bringing out the creativity in some of Des Moines' court-involved youth.

"The niche to fill is, you know, these youth, they can't afford out-of-school art opportunities," said John Mark Feilmeyer, ArtForceIowa's executive director. "And they also can't necessarily get them in school, even in schools where they're offered. It's a place for them to come and express themselves."

Feilmeyer came to lead the non-profit three years ago, when it first got off the ground. He says, through art, these kids are finding their purpose, and choosing to chase their talents, while staying out of trouble.

"You're not doing well in math, you're not doing well in English. What are you good at? You can be good at those things, but if you're already good at art, or music, or drums - or whatever it is that lights your fire and gets you excited - if you have that, it can empower you to do all the things you want to do," he said.

The program may be young, but it's got backing from the county. Juvenile Court Judge Colin Witt says he recommends ArtForceIowa to kids and parents he works with in the courtroom.

"Those young people that need to create, I think it helps build their sense of self-worth," Judge Witt said. "I think it helps them feel like they belong somewhere. It gives them a hope for the future."

Judge Witt only sees about 20 percent of the county's total number of court-involved youth, but in that small sample, ArtForceIowa seems to be a proven success.

"We have had youth in front of Judge Witt who have been from home, to foster home, to shelter, to juvenile detention, to foster home, to shelter, to independent living," said Feilmeyer. "We've seen kids through six, or seven, or eight placements, in the juvenile court, and we're the one consistent force through that all."

And the numbers back it up: a study conducted by the group shows kids who get involved at ArtForceIowa are 17 percent less likely to commit another offense.

"And that's like, really huge, because if one of those kids - one of those kids - were placed into a juvenile court placement. Into detention - Woodward, Clarindon, Eldora - even for six months to a year, that could be easily our budget for a year," Feilmeyer said. "You're looking at $270 dollars a day for juvenile detention - it's an expensive hotel room for kids that need a lot of surveillance."

All forms of art are encouraged and expressed at ArtForceIowa, too.

"If somebody wants to learn how to break dance, we find somebody," said artist-mentor Saulaman Schlegel. "If they want to learn photography, we find it, If they want to find graphic design, music production, spray paint, fine arts, there's somebody out there that we can connect them with."

Feilmeyer will be the first to tell you this isn't a classroom - it's a community.

"We're really trying to push the theme of community here," he said. "I don't want to be a service provider."

And he says it's unlike anything else happening in Des Moines.

"You look at great cities in the U.S. - New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, D.C. They've all got these really great programs that are doing what we're trying to do," he said. "And nobody else is doing that in Des Moines."

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