June 10, 2008

Hello, Neighbor

“It’s really great to see what happens when you put heart and effort into something, what you can create"

Late last month, 18 large banners went up around Redmond and Terrebonne, black and white photos of ordinary people, each one emblazoned with a pithy quote. The posters are the work of local middle school students, part of an art project called Hello Neighbor

The students, their parents, and many of their photo subjects came together May 30 for a party at Evergreen Studios in downtown Redmond to mark the hanging of the posters.

Photographer Julie Keefe created the Hello Neighbor concept, drawing on her own experiences in Portland’s Boise-Eliot neighborhood. A historically black neighborhood, Boise-Eliot has become much whiter and more upscale since Keefe arrived 17 years ago. Talking to a neighborhood old-timer one day, Keefe was surprised to learn he appreciated most of the changes, save for one – no one seemed to stop and say hello on the street anymore.

The conversation evolved into Keefe’s idea of training students to use digital cameras, and sending them out into their communities to meet and interview the people around them. Over the last several months, students around Redmond have been doing just that. Some focused on their families and friends, while others sought out familiar faces they didn’t know much about, like grocery store clerks or gas station attendants.

Hello Neighbor is run by Caldera, an organization that works with kids in schools that don’t offer much in the way of arts education. Students who want to be part of the Caldera program are required to apply, and teachers and counselors from the different schools help Caldera’s staff sort through the applications and choose the most deserving students. Every week, artists from Caldera come to the students’ school to teach drumming, painting, photography, and more.

Kirsten Kilchenstein, education director for Caldera, said the program tries to seek out students who would benefit from additional adult support. Some are from lower income families, and some have challenging home lives, Kilchenstein said, but there’s no “typical” Caldera participant.

“What all of them have in common is they’re all great kids, first of all,” she said. “But many of them just haven’t had the opportunities many of their peers have had.”

The program is focused on middle school students, and takes on new kids every year. While the day-to-day work with artists ends when students move on to high school, many, Keefe said, stay actively involved through graduation and even beyond. Currently, the program is active at Terrebonne Community School, Elton Gregory and Obsidian middle schools, as well as Pilot Butte Middle School in Bend, Jefferson County Middle School in Madras, and five Portland-area middle schools.

Maddie Ellis, a sixth-grader from Elton Gregory Middle School, said going out to interview and photograph people was a little intimidating at first. In time, she got more comfortable in the process and began to take an interest in what her subjects had to say.

“It was fun. We got to find out where people were from and what their point of view is, what they think about their neighborhoods and how they want to change it.”

Mimi Winegar said involvement in Caldera has made a big difference in her daughter Alizebeth’s life. An eighth-grader at Elton Gregory, Alizebeth has all but taken over the family camera. Winegar said her daughter has shown a keen eye for photography, but more importantly, she’s come out of her shell at school.

“She’s always been a really good kid, but she was shy,” Winegar said. “Now, she’s out there, she’s a leader.”

This summer, several of the students from the Caldera program will be headed to a camp at Blue Lake. Every year, upwards of 200 kids from schools in Portland and Central Oregon spend anywhere from eight to 24 days exploring the outdoors and in workshops with professional artists.

Kilchenstein said the camp is just one way the program seeks to encourage students to broaden their horizons.

“All we ask of them, they don’t have to be artists, they just have to be willing to try new things,” she said.

The Hello Neighbor posters are scheduled to stay up around Redmond and Terrebonne through September 15. After that, they will be combined with similar posters from Bend and Portland-area students and sent on a tour of the state.

Terrebonne Community School sixth-grader Jazlyn Romero said its rewarding for students to see their best work displayed so prominently around the community.

“It’s really great to see what happens when you put heart and effort into something, what you can create,” she said.

--story and photo by Scott Hammers

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