Kids at hART is a volunteer organization dedicated to making art more accessible to underprivileged kids, the elderly and people with special needs. Pretty impressive, right? What’s more impressive is that the organization is completely organized and run (as in 100%) by teenagers.

Kids at hART was officially founded in January 2010 by Rockville, Maryland high schooler Danielle Clemons along with her classmate Laura Serfaty. In less than a year, they have already built both a strong organizational foundation and a considerable track record: recruiting more than 60 teenage volunteers to lead classes and workshops at local shelters and transitional housing programs, and creating murals for a nearby residential center for senior citizens. Even the organization’s board is made up entirely of teenagers between 14-18 years old.

The goal at Kids at hART is at once simple and profound: to help bring joy into people’s lives through art. Danielle took some time (in between celebrating the high holidays and writing college applications) to tell Repair the World more about the wonderful organization she started.

Could you share a specific story that demonstrates the impact Kids at hART has had on participants?

One time at Stepping Stones homeless shelter, a family with four children stayed there. There was a baby, two young boys and a daughter around twelve years old. When we first started coming, the eldest daughter did not participate in the art, even though her two brothers did. Instead, she quietly stood near us and held the baby. I could tell that she was interested in doing art with us, but she needed to tend to her youngest sibling.

During one of our art classes, I asked her if I could hold the baby. Once I was holding the baby, she drifted over to the art table. She joined her brothers and began the collage project that we had brought that day. As the class went on, she started talking more. In the end, her collage developed beautifully. Every week after that, I would help her with her take care of the baby, so that she could participate in the art class. She deserved to have time to only think about herself and to be kid.

That’s wonderful – are there any other stories like that?
I never thought so much happiness could come from beads and pipe cleaners until we did our art program with Friendship Circle – a Jewish organization that serves children with special needs.

It was Purim, so in honor of Queen Esther and King Achoshverosh our project was to create crowns. Our volunteers along with Friendship Circle’s volunteers demonstrated how to make the crown. We held the children’s hands as they beaded the pipe cleaners and clapped as they did it without help. When one of the children finished his crown he plopped it right on his head. He was excited smiling, so I wanted to get a picture. When I asked him if I could have a picture, he did not even hesitate. All the sudden his smile grew, and he started striking pose after pose. He started to make a thumbs up, then he waved, then he held his crown. By the end of the two hours, there was a whole room of giggling crown wearing children.

What have you learned personally through this work?
Throughout my experience, I have learned that Kids at hART spreads joy through art, but most of all we simply spread joy. The kids we work with need a break from their daily lives. That is what the art classes and programs are for, a time to relax, to have fun, to express themselves creatively, and to laugh.

The kids want individual attention from our volunteers. They want people to run up to, to hug, to draw a picture for. They also want consistency. To promise a child at a homeless shelter that you will be there next week – and then be there – is truly what Kids at hART is about. It is about giving the kids something to look forward to and rely on. Art is an important aspect of kids at hART, but it most likely our smallest aspect. Our biggest aspect is the friendship and companionship that we give the kids that we help.

What has surprised you most doing this work?
What has surprised me the most is how much our volunteers love going to the homeless shelters and participating in all of our programs. The volunteers feel like they are creating a relationship with the children. I think that impacting the children really makes our volunteers feel good and want to come back. These are high school students, ages 14-18, who want to go out of their way and volunteer their time. I never expected that my peers would want to help the kids so much.

I am especially impressed with the volunteers on our Board. The Board is composed of volunteers that have chosen to take a more active role in the organization. The Board manages Kids at hART and each Board member has a position with certain responsibilities. My peers on the Board truly help make Kids at hART happen.

Do you have any plans for growth or new programs in the near future?
Kids at hART is always brainstorming ways to grow and improve. Our volunteers mostly come from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, but we have several volunteers from a local public school. We are working to establish a Kids at hART club in that public school, and are also establishing a Kids at hART branch in New Jersey, which is very exciting.

In the next year we may have more branches in other parts of the country, more shelters, more programs, and hopefully more kids will have art in their lives.

Find out more about Kids at hART’s work and how you can get involved or support their efforts on their website.