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A better appreciation of art might be one path that leads out of poverty

Art washes away from the soul, said painter Pablo Picasso, the dust of everyday life.

Plenty of dust, both literal and figurative, fills the air in Merced County. And Mercedians have posted a mixed record on using art to wash away the dust of everyday poverty.

It isn't a sure thing that young people raised in a culturally rich environment will have a better shot at avoiding poverty, said Keith Law, Merced College professor of humanities and philosophy. But being brought up among travel and the arts, access to rich extracurricular activities and a higher education can only help on the road to a higher income.

Merced hasn't been known lately for its economic success. According to a 2006 U.S. Census American Fact Finder supplied by the Boys & Girls Club, nearly 29 percent of Merced residents live in poverty.

And the city isn't famous for its wealth of arts, culture and education, either. But it does boast some -- and people should take advantage of local opportunities from a young age, say educators and arts patrons.

The town hosts theaters, arts centers, youth programs, a community college and a burgeoning University of California.

"If only children would take ballet, they wouldn't be in gangs -- I don't think it's as simple as that," said Staci Santa, executive director of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. "It would be great if it was."

That said, she added, there is much to gain for a child's -- or an adult's -- future, when given access to arts, education and a balanced combination of the two.

Danielle Mendoza, 8, a third-grader at John C. Fremont Charter School, said her drawing and painting class is not only fun -- it's taught her to pay better attention to detail. And students don't simply copy information to memorize, as in her other classes. "We choose what we want to do," she explained.

Another third-grader, Alec Propes, 9, doesn't plan to continue in art -- he hopes to become a dentist some day. But he also finds his art class beneficial. "It makes people more creative so no one is the same," he said.

Can arts help financial success?

Arts as part of the education system are dwindling with corrosive budget cuts, so children who aren't exposed to the arts at home often are losing the chance to be inoculated with them in schools.

"What the arts do for our brain is to help us learn to be creative, use our imagination, how to express ourselves," Santa said. "And, of course, that continues throughout our lives."

The more she talks to teachers, the more she finds that students can't access an arts education program. "Is it a coincidence that children haven't honed in on good critical thinking in schools?" she asked. "Students just want to know what the right answer is. Teaching to test -- we are starting to see the effects of that."

Those who will move on to complex, high-paying jobs, those who will solve some of the world's thorniest problems, will need think creatively as opposed to looking at issues as simply black or white, said Sue Thompson, a Merced High School art teacher.

Lisa Gilliland-Viney, of Atwater, came from a science background before she got involved with art. The former immunologist taught herself to paint with water colors and acrylics, then immersed herself in the Merced arts community after moving here five years ago.

"Science is creative," she said. "But this is a different way to tackle creativity."

She loves to work with neutral colors and enjoys teaching others -- especially children -- about tints and shades.

The scientist and artist is now a part of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center's Artree program, which brings artists into classrooms to work with students. And she does art demonstrations at the Merced County Fair and the Big Valley Arts & Culture Festival.

Aside from what the arts and similar activities do for a person's education, it also teaches him to get involved in his community and become a productive member of it. "They learn to contribute back to society," Thompson said. "It's a wonderful outlet to work out emotional issues if life isn't going along as you planned. Art teaches you to use your time productively."

Another Artree artist, Susan Vanderhorst, teaches her techniques to youngsters two days a week at juvenile hall. "It gives them a creative outlet," she explained. "Their days are so restrictive; this allows them to be freer thinkers."

Kids who take part in many activities don't end up making more money simply because of their hobbies, Santa said. But nontraditional pursuits can make people proud of what they do and foster higher hopes of achieving success.

And participating in extracurricular activities -- including sports, studies outside school and mentorship programs -- can keep kids out of trouble, said Suni White, spokeswoman for the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County.

"They say an idle mind is the devil's workshop," she said. "If you're not productive, there's no desire, no encouragement."

The idle mind vs. the busy mind

What winds up happening is that kids make their own fun. "They walk the mall," White said. "And that's the minimum. At the maximum -- gangs. Who doesn't want to be part of something?"

The Boys & Girls Club offers an option for young people in Merced County. It gives them somewhere to go, get help with homework, play sports and build relationships with other children and adults.

"It's better than being on the streets, getting into trouble," said Samantha Johnson, 17, a member who plays various sports at the club. "It makes the day go by faster."

All the young people who come in won't always be successful in life -- but they need to try, said Tony Slaton, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. "It's about the process, the development of character, social skills, sportsmanship."

The local organization recently received a $96,000 grant from the state for outreach associated with gang prevention. This can be used in many ways, Slaton said.

The idea is to bring more at-risk youth into the Boys & Girls Club to teach them how to become educated, relate to others and stay out of trouble. The term "at-risk" applies to children who are exposed to or are already involved in violence, alcohol, drugs, poverty -- or, in a disturbing number of cases, all of them.

A large part of the organization's solution to poverty and crime is education. "Education is the intervention," Slaton said. "Get an education, get a job, take care of your family."

He believes the Merced area suffers from a lack of exposure to creative and academic influences. So part of the Boys & Girls Club program seeks to help young people see that these things are available to them.

Joshua Williams, 14, has attended the club for about a year and has become part of its junior staff. He gets community service credits at Merced High School for his work with other children, making sure everyone behaves.

William's says he already interacts better with other people and believes he has developed social skills that will help him get a better job down the road.

Slaton wants young people to realize they are good enough for positive learning influences -- especially academic institutions.

According to statistics from the 2006 U.S. Census American Fact Finder, the county is the second-lowest in the state for high school students eligible to attend one of California's public universities. "That's not good," he said. "Our efforts have been to open this door."

The Boys & Girls Club takes its members to visit Merced College and UC Merced to show them a tangible example of how they can connect to higher education.

Can UC Merced help?

Slaton believes the recent addition of a University of California in Merced is of immeasurable benefit to young people here. "This is something they didn't have exposure to before," he explained.

But as far as how much it will do for the area's economy -- it's too soon to tell.

"When the dust settles, the university 10 years from now will be a value to the community," Law said. "Of course, having an economic spinoff would be a great thing. But the bottom line is what it does to the spirit of the community."

Having more students and professors in the area can add a more intellectual vibe to Merced, he said. Which is constructive. But a lot of professors still live elsewhere and commute each day.

How much the university has enhanced the local employment rate and economic levels has yet to be seen. "Whether it contributes to lowering the poverty rate -- I don't know," said Todd Neumann, a UC Merced economics professor. "It certainly brings in jobs for people like myself. But I'm from out of town."

Jobs aren't necessarily going to locals. So while people in the stucco adobe tower are finding work, how much does that trickle down to the working poor in Merced?

"In the long term, it's more likely," Neumann said. "It will certainly create opportunities, jobs, at the university or businesses that crop up to cater to or support the university and its students."

And it creates a better chance of getting bright, ambitious young adults to stick around. Historically, Mercedians often leave to pursue opportunities in other cities.

"But now that UC Merced is here we have quite a few people from the Valley," he said. "Once they get an education, they'll have a foothold to make a living. They might stay."