California Teen Creates a Safe Space Through Art

Daily Point of Light # 6473 Mar 12, 2019
Students from the Richmond Art Center show off their art projects./Courtesy Jeremy Millsap
The Richmond Art Center is a safe space for Nicole Ward. She started taking art classes there when she was just 7 years old after her grandparents noticed that she had artistic talent. Now in high school, she has been volunteering there for almost two years, assisting one of her former teachers with classes and a summer art camp for kids ages 2-12.

Ever since elementary school, Nicole has always made friends with the outsiders. Now, she’s the go-to volunteer for working with students that might feel like the odd ones out. She has a gift for making them feel comfortable and included, and helping them flourish in the classes.

Nicole is helping children discover the joys of art and working to make the Richmond Art Center a safe space for future generations. She is today’s Daily Point of Light Award honoree. Points of Light spoke with her to learn more about her service.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What inspired you to start volunteering?

I used to take classes at the Richmond Art Center when I was little, so I used to go there a lot as a kid. When I got older, my grandpa wanted me to have a “job,” so he went and talked to the volunteer coordinator at the center about me volunteering. I didn’t know I’d like it as much as I do, but it ended up being really good for me.

Describe your volunteer role with the Richmond Art Center

I assist the teacher and do whatever she wants me to do, whether that’s cleaning, setting up, washing brushes, organizing things or helping the kids. I do a lot of hands-on work, too. Usually she lets me work with the problem kids – the ones who are in trouble all the time or have special needs or who are really little. That’s usually where I step in.

I have a big part in showing new volunteers what to do, where things are, where we put things. When a new volunteer comes, I’ll tell them where things go, where to find certain things, what we usually do at the end of the class.

Nicole (front row left) at the Richmond Art Center./Courtesy Jeremy Millsap

What has been the most rewarding part of volunteering?

For me, it would be helping out this one kid, his name is Vincent. He has autism and, when he first came he didn’t want to be there and he was very disruptive. But he was a really cute kid, so I would try to help him. I didn’t know how to help him at first, but it was really inspiring and touching to learn how to handle him and make him feel comfortable, to make him laugh sometimes, to watch him grow and get more comfortable in the class, to actually start doing stuff.

Is it hard to manage the classroom?

Sometimes it’s very difficult, because the teacher can’t do it all by herself. The maximum number of kids in the class is 12, but this session we have a lot more. The teacher is very generous and likes to take kids off the waiting list. In one of our classes, we have 14 people and some of them don’t have a chair. Sometimes I’m the only volunteer there, and when that happens I have to work very fast. I feel like I’m running sometimes. It isn’t always easy, but I have to get it done.

What is your favorite thing about volunteering?

I really like interacting with the kids. I’ve met some really cool volunteers there, too, and made friends with a lot of them. I have social anxiety and sometimes get anxious about talking to strangers, so being friends with volunteers and getting to know them has been really cool. The kids are also a lot of fun to interact with. The little ones say funny things and they’re really cute.

What have you learned from your volunteer experience?

I’ve learned more about kids. I’m not around kids a lot, because I’m the only kid in my house and there aren’t kids on my street. For me it’s been interesting to learn what they’re like and see all their different personalities. To see how they talk to each other and how they interact on their own.

Why do you think teaching art is important?

I think it’s important for kids to be able to express themselves, especially if they’re young and can’t do it through words. Sometimes, certain colors they use can describe what they’re going through. There was this one kid who was sad a lot and I noticed he liked to use a lot of black. Colors or different activities we do can express what they’re feeling, even when they can’t talk about it, or don’t know how to talk about it, or don’t know how to say it because they’re only 3 years old.

Art also gives kids something to do. It’s very fun for them. If they don’t want to play, they can sit there and use all these different colors. They like to ask what colors they are, and that’s really cool.

Students painting in one of Nicole’s classes./Courtesy Jeremy Millsap

Are there any future events, programs, or partnerships that you’re looking forward to?

We have Jazz Art coming up, which is going to be fun. Jazz musicians come into the class and the teacher reads stories to the kids while there’s jazz music playing. The kids will draw an instrument or whatever they want to draw. I like the music and I think it’s good for the kids to hear that kind of stuff. The kids really like it, too.

At the end of each season, we have a big art show for the parents where we hang up the kids’ pictures and show off their pottery, and the parents come in. All the art the kids make is kind of cool. It’s really cute and funny how deformed what they want to make is [laughs]. They want to make an elephant, but then the legs are so long and the trunk isn’t that long, or they want to make an alligator, but they don’t know how to make spikes.

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?

I think it’s especially important for teenagers. People think video games and all of that are more important, when there are kids out there. I think it’s important that the volunteers at the Richmond Art Center are giving their time to help these kids.

The kids appreciate it, too. They can use having younger people around. It’s really important for everyone if there’s volunteers around. For teenagers it’s so important – it’s something you’re doing with your time that’s worth it.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Nicole? Visit All for Good for local volunteer opportunities.


Brenda Solis