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St. Louis-area arts volunteers provide transportation and teaching to heal communities

Gloria, 9, goes through ballet warm ups on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in Skinker Debaliviere.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gloria, a 9-year-old CommUNITY Arts Bus student, goes through ballet warm ups on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in Debaliviere Place. Gloria is part of a program that provides support to kids in the St. Louis area from low-income families and those who experience community violence.

St. Louis-area volunteers are working to heal the community from violence through free visual and performing arts classes. CommUNITY Arts Bus provides tuition and transportation scholarships to kids in the St. Louis area from low-income families — some as young as 3 who are immediately impacted by violence.

Volunteer drivers take children to free arts programming, including dance, woodworking and music classes around the region. Paige Walden, a dance instructor at Central Studio in DeBaliviere Place, said she collaborated with Collective Motion to foster community through creativity. The initiative began in February 2017 after her friend and fellow dancer, Rain Stippec, survived being shot eight times.

“My trauma response was just like, do anything to help her. She was fighting for her life for so long. I think she was like 120 days in the hospital,” said Walden, the founder of CommUNITY Arts STL, which runs the Arts Bus. “It really shook me and opened my eyes to what's going on in St. Louis. Especially being mainly based in Webster [Groves] for so long. We're so siloed compared to the rest of the city.”

Paige Walden-Johnson, CommUNITY Arts STL founder, works with students on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in Debaliviere Place.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Paige Walden-Johnson, CommUNITY Arts STL founder, works with students on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in Debaliviere Place.

Walden brought in performers from around the country to support Stippec during the first CommUNITY Arts Festival in 2017. Even though the event was a success, Walden explained, coping with what happened to her friend was difficult. She wasn't able to stop seeing how many people shared similar experiences with gun violence.

“It was, unfortunately, completely a trauma response," Walden said. "I was overworking myself to avoid my own feelings and my own grief.”

The experience led to the creation of a pilot program where Walden drove children to her dance classes. However, she said she recognized the limitations of working alone. Walden met with community leaders and trauma surgeons. Later, she got involved with the St. Louis Violence Prevention Commission to find more people in need.

“These were survivors, like kids that have entered the hospital system with a bullet wound, specifically, or stabbing, and that was tough,” she said.

Gloria Adekunle, 9, sets up a ballet barre as instructor Abbie Hinrichs, 29, watches on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in Skinker Debaliviere.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gloria, a 9-year-old CommUNITY Arts Bus student, sets up a ballet barre as instructor Abbie Hinrichs, 29, watches on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in DeBaliviere Place.

Life Outside of Violence helped Walden give resources to those in need. It’s a hospital-based intervention program that works with SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, among others. With more resources, Walden learned that the impact of violence extends beyond the victim.

“You know, the person that was shot, of course, is affected. I saw how it affected the little sisters of this particular student, and how the mom has like eight kids and works X amount of jobs to make it work, and is like, would love for her kids to be able to do something, but no one could drive her there,” she said.

The CommUNITY Arts Bus program grew to reach more teachers and parents. Walden knows the importance of expression for children. The practical truth, she says, is that many parents don’t have the resources needed to actualize the need.

“I was lucky to grow up with my mom and she called herself a cab driver, and she was fully devoted to driving us everywhere. I did everything, Girl Scouts and all that stuff. And I'm just so blessed to be that person. This is an easy way for me to give back,” Walden said.

Gloria Adekunle, 9, goes through ballet warm ups on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in Skinker Debaliviere.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gloria, a 9-year-old CommUNITY Arts Bus student, goes through ballet warmups on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in DeBaliviere Place.

When children show interest in dance, they can apply for a scholarship to Central Studio. Then, transportation is arranged. Children in the CAB program become a part of classes where local children dance.

“We're having kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds in the same dance classes, different skin colors, religions, beliefs, and so they're getting a lot more exposure,” Walden said.

She’s grown with these kids, watching them advance in their classes. Ife joined the program in 2018. Her family immigrated from Nigeria and lives in north St. Louis County. Walden, or another volunteer, drives around 30 minutes to pick Ife and her sisters up once a week.

“Even if [Ife] doesn't, or any of these kids don't dance or do arts beyond college, they have learned discipline, they've found resources in how to express themselves in a creative and safe manner,” she said. “They're learning how to take care of themselves.”

Gloria, a 9-year-old CommUNITY Arts Bus student, helps Nifemi, 8, put on tap shoes on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in DeBaliviere Place.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gloria, a 9-year-old CommUNITY Arts Bus student, helps Nifemi, 8, put on tap shoes on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, during a class at Central Studio in DeBaliviere Place.

Several volunteers have joined since Walden started the pilot program. CAB drivers play a crucial role for these kids, she says. It’s more than just driving.

“Some of the family situations are heartbreaking. I've had kids come in like, ‘my dad escaped out of prison and kidnapped me once,’ and ‘I'm hungry, can I have another snack, Ms. Paige? I haven’t eaten today,’” she said.

Nicole Hunter volunteers nearly anywhere she’s needed, doing social media, driving and administration in the studio. She sees students from every background.

“It is really a matter of consistency for a lot of these kids,” said Hunter. “Just being a trusted adult in their life to ask them how their day school was, which is simple, but it really matters for all ages and their development.”

Hunter is one of eight drivers. This includes Walden, who says they’ve hit capacity for students. CommUNITY Arts Bus needs more than just transportation; she says there isn't unlimited space. The nonprofit has established partnerships with youth organizations including LitShop, which offers woodworking, reading clubs and more.

“I want them in LitShop, I want them in pianos, there's a drumming group, whatever it may be. There's so many options for these kids to try, figure out what they love,” Walden said.

Paige Walden-Johnson, CommUNITY Arts STL founder, works with Anita Nikolov, 4, on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in Skinker Debaliviere.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Paige Walden-Johnson, CommUNITY Arts STL founder, works with Anita Nikolov, 4, on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at Central Studio in Debaliviere Place.

It’s a community-backed program. She hopes it will grow, becoming more accessible to kids living in historically underfunded areas.

“I didn't want to come off like we're coming into someone else's community and bringing them to our community, because that's better, or whatever,” she said. “I would love to find more organizations in north county so they can find connections in their own community and just for gas.”

The financial and time constraints take a toll for volunteers, but the drive takes time away from the children. They rush to change as they arrive at Central Studio. Gloria, a third grader and CAB student, evades directions to change into her leotard. Instead, she demonstrates a newly learned trick.

“When I did the leap, I didn't get it. But when we did it again, I was so happy that I got it. I got that trick,” Gloria said. “It just made me feel happy, warm and fuzzy. It's just, I want to have more opportunities to dance, because I barely get to.”

Lauren Brennecke is a senior studying journalism and media studies at Webster University. She is a Fall '23 Newsroom Intern at St. Louis Public Radio.