DENHAM SPRINGS -- None of the costumes matched, and neither did the shoes.
But that was okay with everyone there, Danielle McCants said. The purpose of the Young Artists’ Academy (YAA) — which was performing its own version of “The Nutcracker” on this day last December — isn’t about looks, but about bringing people together.
So together, all 20 YAA kids got on stage and performed their dances, all while looking like a “mismatched mess.”
It was quite the sight, McCants recalled with a laugh.
“None of the outfits matched or fit together, so we fit the child to the costume first and then created the dances after,” said McCants, director of the Young Artists’ Academy. “But when the kids got on stage, you could just see in their faces how big a deal it was for them.”
McCants has seen that delight on children’s faces plenty of times since becoming the director of the Young Artists’ Academy, which is one of three programs under Psalm 37:3, a non-profit organization in Denham Springs started by Rev. Leslie Akin of Luke 10:27, A Community of Faith.
Psalm 37:3 aims “to uplift the community through family building, racial diversity, educational resources, and loving Godly council,” according to its website. It accomplishes that through three programs: The Young Artists’ Academy (YAA), the LANDers program, and St. Augustine Homeless Youth (STAHY).
McCants, who was director of LANDers before switching to the YAA, said all three programs are rooted in the same objective of “unity,” and they each have different ways of reaching it.
“Our main goal is to get everyone involved,” McCants said. “We want to get the word out. Our goal here is to bring unity to the community, and we want children to have a safe place to come.”
In the YAA, free art classes are offered to children ages 5-18 in Denham Springs and the surrounding areas. Throughout the school year, children gather at Luke 10:27 Church or the L.M. Lockhart Community Center for lessons in a plethora of subjects, including dance, vocal training, guitar, drums, piano, pottery, and arts and crafts. There’s even a cooking class.
“Some people don’t consider cooking an art, but nonetheless it’s a good life skill to have,” McCants said.
The YAA currently has between 25-30 children, and classes are held every Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. In exchange for free arts classes, parents are required to take a class in cooking, personal finance, and parenting.
The classes, led by volunteer teachers, are stacked on top of each other, and children rotate every hour to the next. Most of the children participate in all classes, McCants said.
“We want them to be able to go to all of them if possible,” she said.
In the LANDers after-school program, children are taught how to live off the land. They learn how to raise chickens in a coup behind the church, they collect eggs and practice cooking, and they tend to a garden in the back. A group of past LANDers children even built an arbour out of bamboo, and during a recent visit, beans and other plants were beginning to grow.
At one time, the LANDers children participated in the Mattie Street Market, where they sold young plants and seedlings. They’ve also held fundraisers at Luke 10:27 in the past, selling plants and baked goods with proceeds going toward Psalm 37:3, McCants said.
Unlike the YAA, there is a fee to participate in LANDers. But it is “income-based,” McCants said, adding that the most a parent would pay per child is $30 a week, which she said “is pretty good for after-school care.”
“There are also scholarships available where parents don’t pay at all,” she said. “But since it’s income-base, it could be $5 a week or $10 a week, or nothing. We try to make it affordable. We don’t want to turn anyone away.”
The STAHY program, based in St. Augustine, Florida, was started by Akin’s niece, McCants said, and is a combination of both YAA and LANDers. All three organizations work closely together, sending out a monthly newsletter with updates about each program in addition to a note from one of the program directors on the back.
All three organizations are also active on Facebook and social media, McCants said, as they try to spread the word about the programs they’re offering their communities stretched 630 miles apart.
“The kids are having fun and they’re learning new things,” she said. “But bringing unity and teaching them how to make new friends is what’s most important. To do that, you have to start at an early age.
“Negative stereotypes are taught, maybe not directly, but I believe it’s our job to teach children at an early age that we’re all one and we’re to love everyone, no matter their color, gender, financial background, whatever it may be. We just want unity.”
YAA and LANDers classes are mostly held at Luke 10:27, A Community of Faith, located at 536 Centerville Street, NE, in Denham Springs. For more information on programs under the Psalm 37:3 umbrella, visit www.psalm373.org or call (225) 664-1027.