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Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation fundraises for expansion that will increase enrollment and offerings

Early exposure to the arts is no guarantee for every child. That's a reality that the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation (PRYAF) knows well. More than 85 percent of the students enrolled in PRYAF's free after-school arts classes are latchkey kids, ages 5-18, from low-income, often single-parent households, according to PRYAF Development Director Emily Jagger.

Through fundraising, sponsorships, donations, and grants, the foundation is able to provide tuition-free classes and necessary supplies—including musical instruments, costumes, and props—to ensure that money is never an issue for students and their families.

click to enlarge NEW FACILITY The Paso Robles Youth Art Foundation’s planned expansion (rendered here) would allow it to increase enrollment and offer new enrichment classes of all kinds. - RENDERING COURTESY OF GABRIEL ARCHITECTS
  • RENDERING COURTESY OF GABRIEL ARCHITECTS
  • NEW FACILITY The Paso Robles Youth Art Foundation’s planned expansion (rendered here) would allow it to increase enrollment and offer new enrichment classes of all kinds.

The PRYAF currently serves about 100 students each day—from Paso Robles, its surrounding area, as well as Nipomo, Parkfield, and Bradley. The 7,000-square-foot building it now occupies cannot handle the increased demand for classes.

"We've outgrown our campus," Jagger explained. "Families come to the center daily to enroll their children and teens, but there is a waiting list. This session we have 172 potential students on the waiting list."

A 10,000-square-foot planned expansion will allow the youth center to double its enrollment to 200 students per day, as well as increase enrollment in the five sessions a year they offer, from 350 to 700 students per session.

To understand what the expansion means to those involved, New Times toured the school with Jagger on a Monday afternoon before classes began. Nine studios comprise the campus, which feels like a private school or an arts academy.

Once the students arrive, the center turns into a rhythmic heartbeat as the building comes to life. Students beeline to their classes ready to begin drawing, painting, sewing, or playing guitar. Unlike a typical school campus, these kids are engaged—not dawdling in the hallways—and eager to get busy.

Our first class stop, Art Studio Advanced, offers young artists a chance to build their portfolio in a shared work space. In the studio, I find 11-year-old Cash seated at a large table, quietly drawing. In front of him, open and well stocked, is his personal art kit he brought from home. When asked what he's working on, he says he's drawing a landscape scene in charcoal. Cash quickly turns back to the work, not sidelined by the momentary distraction.

Working in the back of the studio, Nathaly, 14, and PRYAF Executive Director Mindy Dierks are painting a wooden surfboard-shaped sign, a project for The Ravine Water Park in Paso Robles. The two discuss the project as they paint the sign, clearly in a creative mode.

click to enlarge GETTING CREATIVE Student Nathaly, 14, works with Paso Robles Youth Art Foundation Executive Director Mindy Dierks on a surfboard-shaped sign for The Ravine Water Park in Paso Robles. - PHOTO BY REBECCA HOWES
  • PHOTO BY REBECCA HOWES
  • GETTING CREATIVE Student Nathaly, 14, works with Paso Robles Youth Art Foundation Executive Director Mindy Dierks on a surfboard-shaped sign for The Ravine Water Park in Paso Robles.

We continue onward to the Berg Auditorium. Named in honor of PRYAF founder Donna Berg, who started the nonprofit in 1998, the space is impressively large and contains a professional stage, complete with balconies to hold lighting and sound equipment.

As we exit the auditorium, we are immediately in a room filled with irons, ironing boards, and various sewing supplies. As sewing class instructor Jaime Umphenour holds a piece of material and addresses the all-girl class about the fabric, they appear mesmerized.

Next, we follow the sound of young voices, practicing guitars, and the instruction of teacher Kunchang Lee. The band room is a beehive of activity with 13 students seated with guitars in their laps, going over chords, as Lee enthusiastically provides instruction. Among the students is Daniel, a 10-year-old, who has a huge smile on his face.

The joy that these art enrichment courses bring to the youth is evident, and it rubs off on the PRYAF staff and volunteers as well, like Paso Robles resident Lauren Belton. Belton said she's volunteered at the foundation for 10 years and can't wait for the expansion to come to fruition.

"This organization has grown by leaps and bounds," she said. "To see the look on the faces of the students when they are involved is heartwarming."

The new property for the state-of-the-art expansion lies adjacent to the current campus. The Gabriel Architects design team worked closely with the foundation to create a modern, functional, and artistic conceptual design to appeal to young artists and performers by creating a "community hub," Jagger explained.

Fundraising for the project began June 2019, and nearly half of the money necessary to start construction has been raised. A Berg Family Foundation donation of $250,000 was presented to the PRYAF in February by Jennifer Lahoda, Donna Berg's granddaughter.

The gift is a match donation, which means if the PRYAF raises $250,000 by June 30, the Berg Family Foundation will match their original donation and give another $250,000 to the project. Jagger hopes to have the remaining $1.5 million needed to break ground on the project in two years' time, she said.

Upon completion, the new wing will include a culinary arts kitchen, an art gallery, and meeting spaces to display students' artwork. New classes, like ceramics, will apart of the curriculum. It will also have new spaces for graphic design and STEAM classes to prepare students for careers in technology, and a recording studio for songwriters.

PRYAF hopes the new center can serve as a launching pad for the next generation of artists. Jagger became emotional when she reminisced about one past graduate of the program, who's now in college and plans to teach music to students with disabilities.

"I see the value of my work every day. I see the benefits to the students finding their voice," she said. "This is a magical place." Δ

Arts Writer Rebecca Howes is searching for her inner hip-hop vibe. Send arts story tips to rhowes@newtimesslo.com.

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