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Gabby Arenge '14 has long had a passion for art therapy. Now, she has a chance to put her passion into practice - 8,000 miles away. In early June, weeks of careful planning, budgeting and organizing will come to fruition halfway around the world as Arenge establishes an art mentorship program in Nairobi, Kenya.
"I termed it a 'creative safe space,'" explained Arenge, a psychology major and art minor. "There will be couches and art supplies and food. Our first project will be working together with the kids to paint a mural on one of the walls."
Arenge is the winner of a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace program. With the funding, she plans to use art to promote peace among street youth in an urban area of Kenya stricken by harsh poverty.
"Between 250,000 - 300,000 children work on the streets across Kenya, with more than 60,000 in Nairobi alone," Arenge wrote in her project proposal, adding that Nairobi is home to one of the largest slums in the world, and it sits right next to the city's most metropolitan area. It's that unique contrast that drew Arenge to Nairobi. "Children can get lost in that environment," she said. "They can get swept up by drugs or prostitution."
Arenge plans to use art - and the relationships a shared love of art can foster - to keep that from happening. "I think art will be a way for them to express themselves and work through all the trauma and anxiety they may have experienced in their lives," she said.
Arenge plans for the project to culminate in a gallery exhibit of the students' work which could be posted online in order to generate donations for the program. But Arenge says the program she is designing is just as much about mentorship. She is partnering with two non-profits in Kenya, the Undugu Basic Education Programme, an established organization which educates Kenyan street children, and Carolina for Kibera, an organization which implements projects for street youth, to help identify and organize mentors for the children.
"I realized how big a role mentors played in my life and my growth. There's something extremely valuable in that," she said. "I was always very close with my teachers, and my relationships with them were very important in influencing who I am now. These children don't have teachers - many don't even have parents - so I hope the mentor program will give them those sorts of relationships.
"The art aspect of the project can promote inner peace through expression, and the mentorship program can guide and empower the children from the outside," she added.
This will not be Arenge's first time working with young children. She is currently part of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and acts as an older sibling for a young girl right here in New London. She's even used the program to test out some ideas she's had for Nairobi.
"Our second project with the Nairobi children will be a scrapbook that they use to document the relationship with their mentors. I tried this out with my current mentee and it went great. It seems to really strengthen the relationship," she said.
Arenge is a scholar in the College's Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, an interdisciplinary academic center in which students to take classes exploring contemporary issues and undertake an independent study that culminates in a senior research project. The Holleran Center's Program in Community Action, known as "PICA," has been a major source of inspiration for Arenge.
"PICA brings your perspective out of those set potential life paths. You don't just have to be a doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, etc. You can have a broad impact in any number of ways. That's what I'm interested in exploring," she explained.
Arenge hopes to connect her senior research project with her Davis project in some way, but for now she is concentrating on preparing herself for the inevitable culture shock. "I'm going into a culture I only know through Internet research," she said. "It's going to be challenging, but anything worthwhile is."
- By Sam Norcross '14