Young participants in Robin Grant's For the Love of Learning program get put to work. The finished product? Better Lives.
Emmanuel at For The Love of Learning. Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram
In a large gymnasium-type room in the basement of Gower Street United Church in St. John's Monday afternoon, Nancy turns pieces of an old cardboard box into a coffin.
Emmanuel is also busy with cardboard.
The image he's created in his head has resulted in a life-sized skeleton with an orange pumpkin's head.
Across from Emmanuel, several other young people sit cross-legged on the floor, tying long pieces of white wool onto dozens of black bats that they've made from cardboard. Along the walls of the room are props used in plays as well as other pieces of artwork created by the youth. And well-stocked bookshelves.
The learning that takes place in this room, the adjoining computer room and a space filled with musical instruments is anything but mainstream classroom teaching.
But then, those who come to the centre to learn are anything but mainstream youth and young adults.
Some know what it's like to be hungry and homeless. All know how it feels to be supported in overcoming their adversities while striving to create a better future.
Many have been searching for years for a safe haven.
They've found that in Robin Grant's For the Love of Learning.
Grant is founder, co-ordinator and executive director of the centre that offers free workshops on writing, art, theatre and multimedia.
The workshops stem from the thoughts and ideas of the participants, allowing them to express themselves through the arts while developing a whole new set of life skills.
Nancy, a playwright and artist, says the centre offers an opportunity to both give of herself and learn from others, in a place where no one is judged and everyone appreciated.
"There is always somebody who needs to take and somebody who has something to offer here," she says of her role as workshop assistant.
Nancy is as strong willed as she is articulate. Determined to succeed in life, she supports herself and has her own apartment. She says Grant has what it takes to "move mountains" where youth are concerned.
Unfortunately, she says, she doesn't have the money to do so.
"This was something Robin envisioned and she went and did it. I imagine it's very difficult, but the benefits to people like me are astronomical," she says.
Originally from New Brunswick, 24-year-old Emmanuel travelled the country for many years before settling in Newfoundland about a year ago.
He now works as operations manager at For the Love of Learning.
Emmanuel brings a great deal of practical insight and street smarts to his position.
He's also lead workshops in papier machÉ mask-making and creative writing, plays a number of instruments and is a poet and artist.
While there are numerous facilities for youth in every province, Emmanuel says, Grant's centre offers young people much more than shelter.
"Other places help clothe you and help feed you, but this place is building an entrepreneurship by indulging us in education for the arts. It promotes growth of mind and actually has something for people to do when they come here that's productive."
Workshop participants may receive tuition vouchers and/or small financial stipends through government programs. However, the centre operates on a shoestring budget, thanks to a donation from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council as well as a $10,000 gift from an anonymous donor.
While a portion of the $10,000 was to go towards Grant's salary, she has donated the money back into the centre and continues to punch full-time hours as a volunteer.
For the Love of Learning may not be well known in this province. However, Grant's literacy-based initiative is turning heads in other parts of the country.
In May 2008 she was one of three finalists in the social action category of Canadian Living magazine's "Me to We" awards.
She was also recently contacted by Chatelaine magazine about For the Love of Learning. The feature story will be published in the magazine's upcoming January issue.
Grant is confident the centre is not only helping the workshop participants but also changing the way others look at at-risk youth.
"Instead of being judged for the trouble they've had, I think they should be judged for their resilience of overcoming them and that they are working towards a better life. None of the youth are here just to hang out. They're always put to work. They're being self-creative instead of self-destructive."
For more information on For the Love of Learning visit www.fortheloveoflearning.org.
The centre will be hosting a Halloween party at its headquarters in the church basement 1-6 p.m. Friday. Others should bring along a food donation or pay $2 at the door. The event is recommended for those 12 years and up.