Art program in Whitehall links refugee families
Joann Kielar, artist in residence, teaches children and their parents how to make puppets at South Hills Interfaith Ministries family center in the Whitehall Place apartments in Whitehall.
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For Eh Ler Sey of Burma, happiness is an alligator puppet with colorful, clacking beads as teeth.
"This is fun!" shouted the 4-year-old, who made the cardboard and fabric puppet at the new Artist in Residence program at the former Prospect Park Family Center, now called Whitehall Place, in Whitehall.
Designed to connect refugee children, like Eh Ler Sey, and their parents with interactive arts and American culture, the program is sponsored by South Hills Interfaith Ministries, the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and Gateway to the Arts.
On Monday, the second week of the four-week program, visiting artist Joann Kielar from Gateway to the Arts taught a group of six children and their families how to make puppets from ordinary household items, such as empty pasta boxes, yarn, buttons and beads.
Last week, the children, many of whom are enrolled in the center's preschool program, learned to make box villages. Next, they will learn how to make musical instruments and then shadow puppets.
"We are excited for this opportunity for our children and their parents to engage in art together," said Courtney Macurak, site director of the center. "The deliberate involvement of parents and extended family was one of the appealing aspects of this project for us. We also wanted our children to be able to create something they could take home and actually play with when they were done."
Ms. Kielar used a yellow duck puppet called Duck Chuck to speak to the children and sing songs. One of the goals of the program is to draw out the playfulness of children to help them learn to communicate, especially for those who speak little English.
"One of the things we aim for here is to get the kids talking," Ms. Kielar said. "Also, getting parents to work with their children is important to us."
Using household items encourages kids' creativity and teaches them the principles of recycling, Ms. Kielar said.
"I make a special effort to use junk," she said. "In this community, I think every child should learn to re-use."
Niyokwizera Perena, 30, of Burundi, and her 3-year-old daughter Niniyubuntu Chadella said they come to a lot of the programs offered by the center.
Niniyubuntu, who was born in Tanzania, was shy but nodded her head enthusiastically when asked if she was having fun. She made a puppet that looked like a young girl, using yarn for hair.
The mother and daughter came to the U.S. in 2009 and typify the residents who benefit most from the center and its programs, said Kate Snyder, community relations manager for South Hills Interfaith Ministries.
About half of the 1,200 units in the Whitehall Place apartment complex are rented by non-American families. Formerly called Prospect Park, the apartment complex has for the past decade been home to a diverse group of refugees, most of whom are escaping war-torn regions and villages.
Residents come from more than 20 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, Ms. Snyder said.
Many families come to the neighborhood directly from refugee camps. Some come from other U.S. cities where jobs and opportunities are scarce, Ms. Snyder said.
"They come here for the job market and strong social services," Ms. Snyder said.
Although South Hills Interfaith Ministries doesn't place families -- other agencies do that -- the nonprofit provides services including the family center, home visits, child development screenings, group activities and referrals to families in need.
The center serves 50 families and children up to the age of 5. It offers other activities, including field trips, family fun nights and guest speakers.
"Ours is unique in that it's the only one with mostly refugees in the program," Ms. Snyder said.
The ministries also sponsors a food pantry for local residents, serving 180 families.
The Artist in Residence program is paid for with a grant from the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh and includes 11 other family centers in Allegheny County.
First Published May 3, 2012 7:39 am