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Academy allows students to find their ‘voice’

By Crystal O’Gorman
Correspondent
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/06/12/18/q03y.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - BEHAILU ACADEMY
    At the Garinger High School graduation this year, Behailu Academy graduates, from left, Eric Williams, Karina Sorto, David Gamble, Lexus Williams, Kia Washington, Kendyll Parsons and Charles Holland gather for a photo.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/06/12/18/1cLpSu.Em.138.jpeg|209
    - BEHAILU ACADEMY
    Students Karina Sorto, left, and Eric Williams paint at Behailu Academy. While some students may already be involved in a particular artistic medium, prior artistic talent is not a requirement for acceptance.

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Behailu Academy, a nonprofit in a 5,000-square-foot old art gallery in NoDa, provides an arts and community-service-based after-school program for 50 students who mostly attend Eastway Middle, Cochrane Middle, and Garinger High schools.

Executive Director Lori Krzeszewski said, “Behailu fills a gap in youth programs, where creative students find a safe haven … giving them the freedom to be themselves and build confidence.”

The students face poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, foster care and addiction on a daily basis, she said. Behailu’s goal is to help students find their voice through creative expression and become active members in the community.

Behailu, which began in October 2012, hires local artists and creative professionals to teach classes such as band, dance, painting, jewelry making, music production and online publication. Students choose classes of interest and are required to attend and submit projects for those classes each session.

There are three sessions per year (fall, winter and spring) and each culminates with a performance or project presentation. Behailu students have performed at Plaza Midwood Merchants’ Holiday Central and displayed work at CPCC’s Sensoria – an annual art and literary festival.

Artist and illustrator Ladianne Mandel has been teaching at Behailu Academy since August 2013. She said the lessons are far more than just instructive.

“My students and I often have conversations about the various ways they move through the world and the ways they perceive their environments, and all of this gives us the opportunity to talk about various ways they can move forward in their lives,” Mandel said.

Beyond creative arts classes, the students get an afternoon snack, have tutors on hand to help with homework and are involved in community service projects. Last year, the students prepared the soil and helped maintain Garinger High School’s garden at the Urban Farm Learning Center.

“We want them to meet people in the community, introducing them to positive role models and build social pathways for change,” Krzeszewski said.

Behailu Academy has made a positive impact on some students’ lives. Since spring 2013, 12 students have graduated from the program, which boasts a 100-percent graduation rate. Five of those students have entered the workforce and seven are college-bound.

Eric Williams, a 19-year-old Garinger High and Behailu Academy graduate, is working at The MayoBird and will start classes at CPCC in January 2015.

“Behailu has inspired me to be open-minded to everything in life,” Williams said. “Since I started going there, I slowly found ways to be myself …. I have discovered happiness on so many levels of my life. Before, I was shy … I kept moving from home to home and this aroused my depression. I found my voice at Behailu, made great, long-term friends, a girlfriend, gave me a reason to trust more people and made great adjustments to my art. I wouldn't have done all of that alone.”

Rakala Townsend, 17, who loves to dance, attended Behailu for the first time during the 2013-2014 school year.

“Behailu is such a wonderful place to go because the people there are so nice and supportive,” she said. “I felt so loved and accepted, and that was the best part.”

Crystal O’Gorman is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Crystal? Email her at crystalogormanwrites@gmail.com.
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