July 28 2010 12:00 AM

Kids tell their stories through snapshots




In March, the work of 10-year-old photographer Mikayla Spyker won first place in the people’s choice category and second place in the amateur competition in the Perspective 2 Studio Photo Contest.

Now, some of Mikayla’s classmates are about to get some exposure in a show of their own.

Photos from youth in the Literacy Through Photography program, along with shots from the organization’s Children With Incarcerated Parents program, will be shown at Old Town’s Creole Gallery through Aug. 29; a reception is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, for an exhibit called “Cameras in the Capital City.”

Both programs are less than a year old and have used photography to teach a total of over 60 area kids how to express themselves through art and words.

But it all began with a math problem.

“I was working on math word problems with this boy who’s about 15, and he just wasn’t interested in it at all,” explains Jeana-Dee Allen, a community building assistant at the Lansing nonprofit organization NorthWest Initiative. Allen heads up the Literacy Through Photography and Incarcerated Parents programs.

“After a little while, I began to realize that he just really couldn’t read the word problems. He had no literacy skills and was actually just angry.”

Later that day, however, the same boy saw Allen taking photos and wanted to take a few of his own. She printed them, and he began to write on the backs of them to give to his friends.

“So I thought, there you go — he’s interested in reading and writing.”

Photography became a door through which Allen and other NorthWest Initiative volunteers could coax kids into learning about verbs, adjectives and nouns, a way in which the kids could create expressions of themselves and their worlds that would stay with them forever.

Projects have taken the students to area parks and to the NorthWest Initiative garden. Rooms have been transformed into jungles as the kids dressed up in costumes and took photos of each other as dinosaurs or unicorns.

Kids in the Literacy Through Photography program have written stories and made scrapbooks with their photos; youth in the Incarcerated Parents program have used photos with letters to give their parents in prison a glimpse of their child’s life.

Both photography programs have been more successful than staff ever could have imagined when they began just over six months ago, says NorthWest I n i t i a t i v e Executive Director Peggy Vaughn- Payne.

“You never know what to expect or how kids will receive any particular class that’s designed for them, but we really try to work with the kids to find out their likes and dislikes,” Vaughn-Payne said.

“Part of our youth program is exposing children to different opportunities that they would not normally have, and this was an opportunity to not only learn about photography, but to increase their skill sets and help them in school. ”

Allen expects the Creole Gallery show to carry that energy beyond the classroom.

“I hope the show is a great confidence boost for the kids,” Allen says, “and also to just encourage them to just keep going at it and to feel like they have value and are important. It is a fund-raiser for the program, but the show really is for the youth to walk in and say ‘I am worth something.’ “I hope the community will see that the kids are creating something positive, and if you can encourage their positive behavior, that they have everywhere in the world to go.”

’Cameras in the Capital City’

Through Aug. 29 Creole Gallery 1218 Turner Street, Lansing 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (517) 487-9549