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  News  


UNIQUE DCFS PROGRAM OPENS NEW WORLDS
TO ABUSED AND NEGLECTED CHILDREN

CHICAGO, IL, JULY 30, 1998 -- DCFS Foster Parent Bertha Gunter has to remind her three foster children of doctor’s appointments, appointments with caseworkers, and appointments at the Juvenile Court. But when it comes to a unique program run by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, no reminder seems to be needed.
"I never have to remind them when we have a class. They just say "Let’s go,’" laughed Bertha Gunter, whose foster children attend a weekly art class that’s part of DCFS’ Pathways to Development program.

Dozens of foster children are gathering today in the Children’s Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden to construct wind socks that will join life-size scarecrows, clay wind chimes and other art projects designed to complement their morning gardening projects at the Children’s Garden.

"Sometimes they’re out all day, doing projects," added Gunter. "It helps to de-stress my household. It gives them skills, and it gives them a sense of control over their lives."

The 10-week art class -- taught by Suellen Rocca, director of Arts Excel and her staff, and supported for the fourth year by the Chicago Botanic Garden -- is part of Pathways to Development, a year-round, multi-stage program designed to encourage children in the state’s child welfare system to develop skills and explore possibilities they may have considered unattainable before.

"I feel deeply about this program," said Rocca, a well-known Chicago artist who has conducted art classes for Pathways to Development since 1995. "They are not simply six-week classes. Children stay in the Pathways program for years, taking classes and attending performances. There’s a kind of group interaction that goes on when children are together that long."

The long-term exposure to arts and cultural events is part of what makes Pathways special, said Sidney Goldberg, administrator of the program and a former caseworker.

"Historically, foster children haven’t had opportunities to develop their interests, talents and abilities," added Goldberg, who founded Pathways in 1995. "Most of the time, child welfare has focused on problems in a child’s life and how to fix them. Pathways takes a different approach. It focuses on meeting the normal developmental needs that all children have. And we’ve learned that the arts serve as a great avenue for teaching children that they are capable of achieving much more than they ever thought possible. They will then be in a position to devleop meaning and direction in their lives."

Approximately 300 foster children attend classes, performances and exhibitions supported by Pathways to Development throughout the year. As of this fall, Goldberg hopes the program will reach 1,000 of Cook County’s estimated 35,000 children living in foster homes and other kinds of substitute care. Foster parents are also encouraged to take part. Three-fourths of Illinois’ foster children live in Cook County.

Although the Chicago Botanical Garden has been among Pathway’s regular collaborators since the program’s inception, most Pathway activities are offered on Chicago’s South Side, near where many of the county’s foster children live.

"That’s important," said Gunter, whose foster children often walk to classes from their home. "It makes the job of parenting easier, and I don’t have to wonder what they are doing."

Goldberg explained that the Pathways to Development program is unique in the nation, in part, because it systematically introduces each foster child to a variety of visual, musical and performance arts, then allows the child to choose which of the arts they find most interesting to pursue. Surveys have turned up no other program of its kind in the nation. The children’s involvement in the program may extend for years, with volunteer mentors developing long-term relationships with individual children, encouraging them to delve deeper into new areas of interest.

The program also includes opportunities for children to perform and exhibit their art work. A permanent exhibition of the children’s work is on display at DCFS’ headquarters, 100 West Randolph St., on the 6th floor. The Cook County Juvenile Court building will also exhibit art work in the near future.

Gunter agreed, noting that her foster children can now point out different periods of architecture, discuss the strong points of various art mediums and recognize popular classical music pieces.

"They’re especially very proud of knowing classical music," said Gunter, whose foster children have seen the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Harlem Boys Choir, and opera performances. "Once I noticed (12-year-old) Jimmie lean over the balcony so he could get a better look at what the pianist was doing. And even the younger children liked the music."

Chanel, age 14, especially liked the video classes taught through the Pathways program. "Working the camera was fun, and we learned how to edit film, direct and produce a film."

Joseph, age 8, said the best part of the program was planting seeds in the Children’s Garden and tending to their growth, but also enjoyed painting in Ms. Rocco’s art class.

"Pathways involves more than just teaching arts," Goldberg added. "We’re trying to give foster children an anchor to the world, a sense of direction that will last a lifetime. And it’s exciting to see the enthusiasm in the children’s eyes. This is a program that goes beyond fixing what’s broken. It sees the child as a whole person, filled with potential, and ready to learn about all the world has to offer."

Rocco agreed, noting that even art classes teach more than skills of the hand.

"The main thing students learn is how to solve problems in a visual way," Rocco explained. "A lot of people think about art as skill building, but art is mostly about communication and problem-solving. And much of the emphasis is really on creative problem solving. There are lots of ways you can solve the same problem, and that lesson transfers to other areas of life."

Goldberg noted that Pathways to Development relies heavily on strong working relationships with organizations, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden and Arts Excel. The program also relies on contributions and voluntary efforts from numerous local organizations. For example, he noted, the Chicago Symphony last year donated more than 1,200 tickets to its performances. Other organizations collaborating with Pathways to Development include the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, the Merit Music Program and Ballet Chicago.

Organizations and individuals wishing to learn more about the Pathways to Development Program and how they can help are encouraged to call Sidney Goldberg at 312-814-1520.

"I’ve learned so much and feel so good about myself," said Chanel. "They’ve shown me how to do a lot of things I never would have been interested in before. I can do a lot more than I thought I could do."

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