HomeFront’s ArtSpace and SewingSpace Options Offer Imaginative Outlets for Creative Projects
“So I never cry. Only when something really tragic happens — like a death or something. But I am tearing up tonight. Not sad tears, just happy and grateful. I’m in shock — I’m graduating!
“I never thought I would make it to 29 or EVER thought about college. I never had a graduation because I got my GED five years ago. I never would have gotten that without help from a homeless shelter. Because I went there, I met a wonderful person who saw what I had in me, and arranged for me to be in art exhibits. People liked the work, and I was told to apply to art college.”
Emily “Strange” (her on-line soubriquet) recently posted this message to her Facebook friends. A former client at the Princeton area’s HomeFront shelter, she graduated from Parsons School of Design, where she is currently working on a masters degree.
Emily’s is just one of HomeFront’s many stories of those who have overcome severe obstacles in their lives and who have become productive, independent, and committed members of their communities.
Twenty years ago, Princeton resident Connie Mercer sat with friends around her kitchen table, and considered ways to help impoverished families who were living — basically hand-to-mouth — at various welfare motels on Route One. Ms. Mercer and friends began by providing meals to these families, and over the years, a series of programs were introduced, and the organization, known as HomeFront, and guided by Ms. Mercer, became a mainstay for people in need.
The programs cover a wide spectrum. Consider what HomeFront provided for families last year:
• 16,221 families were given shelter, food, and emergency assistance.
• 358 families with 805 children were housed in HomeFront’s Emergency Shelter Program.
• 8,110 food bags were distributed at the HomeFront food pantry.
• 111 long-term welfare people received help securing full-time work.
• 3,816 visits to the HomeFront Free Store were made by clients in need of clothing and household items.
• 119,080 meals were served to clients at the Family Preservation Center.
• 192 children attended one of five 8-week summer camps.
• 150-plus children participated in the year-round programs on any given day.
• And in 2014, 1500 Thanksgiving baskets were distributed to clients.
The HomeFront mission continues Connie Mercer’s original concept: “to end homelessness in central New Jersey by harnessing the caring, resources, and expertise of the community; to lessen the immediate pain of homelessness and help families become self-sufficient; to give people skills and opportunities to ensure adequate incomes and to increase the availability of adequate affordable housing.”
HomeFront provides 92 affordable dwellings for clients throughout the area, and the organization is supported by funds from the state, county, corporations, and individuals. As in many such programs, funding is an ongoing challenge.
In addition to HomeFront’s dedicated staff, more than 1200 volunteers come together to support the organization and its clients. Among the organization’s many programs, including education, job training, and career support, are creative opportunities, such as ArtSpace and most recently, SewingSpace.
“By encouraging creativity and self-expression in a safe and nurturing environment, our goal is to rebuild the souls of individuals suffering from poverty, homelessness, and family abuse,” notes a HomeFront information statement.
“In the environment provided by the ArtSpace innovative therapeutic art program with the non-threatening, non-judgmental encouragement of the ArtSpace Team, clients are able to look inside themselves, and by artistic expression begin the process of restoring their defeated inner spirit,” continues the statement.
“We offer a very mentoring environment and a safe haven,” points out Ruthann Traylor, HomeFront ArtSpace director, who has been with the organization nine years. “The support the clients receive makes all the difference.”
Many of those (mostly older teens and adults) in the art program are initially reluctant to try their hand at expressing their imagination, she notes. “They often come in and say ‘I can’t do this.’ And then they see they are able to succeed and finish a project. I’ll say ‘We are going to finish this.’ Finishing something is very important. It breaks down their resistance, and shows they can succeed. It’s wonderful to see them progress. And it’s a joy to see someone walk in with all the new art she has created. I am amazed at their creativity, and some are really very talented.
“In addition,” continues Ms. Traylor, “the clients realize that they can make a mistake, and it’s OK. They can find ways to fix it. Also, in our classes, everyone is an artist; no one is defined as a homeless person.”
The clients’ artwork is exhibited at various shows in the area, she adds. “When we have an exhibit in the community, we celebrate the clients’ art. It’s educational and a new experience for them to attend the exhibits. They are in a whole new space — figuratively and literally.”
A recent exhibit was held at the West Windsor-Plainsboro Public Library, and in January, another will be featured at the Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell. More exhibits are planned during the holiday season.
In addition to the artwork, recent exhibits have included items HomeFront clients have created in the new SewingSpace program. Started last January, this program offers them a chance to learn to sew and construct a number of articles, such as tote and handbags, pillows, wine bags, pin cushions, table runners, knitted dolls and baby sweaters, as well as an opportunity to learn the techniques of re-upholstery.
The clients’ items are available for purchase at the exhibits, and the proceeds are divided 60 percent (clients)—40 percent (HomeFront). It can be a thrill for a client when her creation has been sold. “We took 20 bags to the Princeton Farmers Market, and they were very popular,” reports Ms. Traylor. “People loved them.”
“Never underestimate the power of a woman with a sewing machine!” reads the wording on a plaque prominently displayed in the SewingSpace quarters. This sentiment has been taken to heart!
Initially, two sewing machines were donated, and now several more have been added to the program. Many clients have learned and are continuing to learn to sew and take pride in their creations.
“First, we teach them to sew. This is basic,” explains Ms. Traylor. “After they learn to sew, then they can move on to other options. When they make handbags, they start with a painting on a canvas, then it is sewed onto the fabric. It is so encouraging to see their progress. One client recently made a baby’s changing pad and a matching bag. An item like this fills an actual need for many clients.”
A number of volunteers help the clients, and they also often find and donate the fabric, and many times it is of a very high quality.
Over the years, Ms. Traylor has been involved in numerous programs to help the homeless, and she is very enthusiastic about the progress HomeFront clients in ArtSpace and SewingSpace have made.
“HomeFront is so important. It helps to break the cycle of poverty, and it helps to teach clients self-reliance and builds their self-esteem. The greatest benefit of HomeFront is the support we give the clients. They see that someone is willing to help them, and they can get a GED (high school equivalency certification), and this gives them confidence to move on to the next step.
Some clients have gone on to college and further success, she notes, and a number often return as HomeFront volunteers. “One former client always come back over the holidays and sponsors 80 kids,”
“It’s a great team that we have here,” continues Ms. Traylor. “All the HomeFront volunteers and staff brainstorm and share ideas together. There is great interaction with everyone. And, the clients develop a connection with the volunteers and the staff. This is a way of connecting both worlds.”
ArtSpace and SewingSpace classes each meet twice a week, with three to 10 volunteers (15 to 20 volunteers in both programs) to help clients who number approximately 10 to 12 in a class. Seasonal items, including Christmas cards and ornaments, as well as decorative bags and other items, are part of the program leading up to the holidays.
ArtSpace and SewingSpace have become a vital part of the HomeFront agenda, with results that go beyond painting or sewing. As a HomeFront report states: “We believe that the creative process involved in self-expression helps people resolve conflicts and problems, develop inter-personal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight. We encourage clients to tap into their creativity, which often opens doors to new ways of thinking and reveals their inner voice.”
HomeFront’s main office is located at 1880 Princeton Avenue in Lawrenceville. Plans are underway for an expanded campus to open in 2015 on 8.5 acres at a former Naval base in Ewing Township.