By Philip Sean Curran
The crowd that was seated at tables inside Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center on Nov. 29 waited until Connie Mercer and Anne Reeves walked in to shower the two women with applause.
They were there on a night to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a partnership between two nonprofit organizations that is still going strong.
Mercer, the CEO and founder of Homefront, which combats homelessness, and Reeves, the then-leader of the Arts Council of Princeton, arranged to bring at-risk youth to Princeton for art instruction once a week.
Each Thursday, children as young as 5 and as old as 18 come by bus, get dropped off and then spend part of their evening at the Arts Council.
“I’m really pleased, because I know it’s been hundreds and hundreds of kids who have been able to come here,” Reeves said ahead of an event where she and Mercer were being honored.
“They get a vision of a different future,” said Mercer, when asked what the young people gain from the experience. “That’s really important for folks who have been constrained by their circumstances. They have never had a chance to dream or to appreciate the joy of creativity.”
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora attended the celebration and shared how many of his city’s youth are among those participating in the program.
“I think it gives them an outlet to pursue the arts,” Gusciora said.
Mercer recalled the phone call Reeves made to her, telling her that “your children need some art in their lives.”
“I thought she was crazy, because at that point in time we were struggling so hard,” Mercer said in looking back. “Because there were hundreds of families that were warehoused in these grim motel rooms along Route 1 and we were a bunch a volunteers and we had all we could do to get them fed and to get clean water.”
Mercer said Reeves told her, “it’s very nice you’re feeding them, but they need something for their souls.”
Today, anywhere from 15 to 22 young people come on Thursdays starting at 6:30 p.m. One of their art teachers touched on the engagement level of her students.
“The normal, typical lesson we provide, they get traditional art instruction,” said instructor Barbara DiLorenzo. “They jump in with both feet and they really want to learn whatever it is we’re helping them to see differently, whether it’s how to draw, how to observe, how to sculpt.”
DiLorenzo said McCarter Theatre is a partner in the program and she said there are guest artists who come “from time to time.”
At 87, Bob Jenkins is one of the familiar faces of the program and known affectionately as “Mr. Bob.” A retired security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, he has been a volunteer art instructor since the partnership started in 1993.
He said that for him, “the enjoyment of watching the kids” is what he gets from the experience.
“Because I’ve been working with them for so long, it’s no longer a job,” said Jenkins, who was one of the honorees at the celebration.
Chris Marchetti, the director of the joy, hopes and dreams program at Homefront, said that for each child, the experience of working with art is different.
“Some of them, I think, it’s a voyage into imagination, into creativity, into color,” said Marchetti, who was one of the honorees. “For some of them, I think it’s an escape from some of the tough realities some of them see. For some of them, I think, it’s a place where they belong. It’s a place where they feel safe, welcome, accepted.”
“It’s phenomenal,” Reeves said. “(Mercer) is the best partner you could ever ask for.”