BAM! makes children masters of art at Brandon Boys & Girls Club

When her 9-year-old son is in art class at the Carey Family Boys & Girls Club of Brandon, Claudia Foster knows to wait until the last minute to pick him up.

Marcus is having too much fun drawing and hanging out with his friends. She gets strict instructions to “pick me up later. I don’t want to miss art class.”

Since March, Foster’s son is among nearly 100 children who never want to miss a moment at Brandon Art Masters! Program (BAM!) with their art instructor, affectionately known as “Mr. Q.”

“He always tells me how art brings him together with his classmates,” says Claudia Foster. 

Marcus and other Boys & Girls Club children thrive on friendship and shared activities through art, sports and academic encouragement. But that feeling of community went missing amid the COVID-19 pandemic with its protocol of masks and social distancing. 

Then, Natasha McKeller, director at the Carey Family Brandon Club, began noticing a remarkable change in children as they drew pictures in art class or dipped their hands into wet clay for pottery creations. Art was restoring what was lost.

“Most of all I noticed that the kids were expressing themselves on the level that was more of a healing for them, especially following being on lockdown from the pandemic,” she says. “They spent a few months on the lockdown no longer knowing how to socialize with their friends and their peers.”

Art was a way for them to communicate again.

“So, we decided to keep (art) going,” McKeller says. “Let’s give them more art projects. Let’s introduce them to different things whether it was performing arts, visual arts, or anything where they can say how they were feeling.”

That was the start of BAM!, which launched in March 2022. It is funded by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County as an after-school program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

The board was created in 1988 by a voter referendum that supported the mission of providing children-based services throughout the county. Its focus is to support high-quality programs to ensure the health, wellness and academic success of all children and families in Hillsborough County. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay are among numerous nonprofits whose programs are supported by the Children’s Board. More than 12,500 children in Hillsborough and Pasco Counties enjoy sports, fitness and art at 25 Boys & Girls Clubs in Tampa Bay.

In BAM! each young artist gets personal art instruction two hours a week from Mr. Q. Classes are divided into three grade-level groups of kindergarten and first grade; second and third grade; and fourth and fifth grade. Students showcase their artwork at special displays at the Boys & Girls Club. They learn quickly that art isn’t like a standardized test at school with right or wrong answers.

“Mr. Q lets the children know that there is no mistake in your art,” says McKeller. “Your art is your expression and not everyone may understand it, not everyone may like it, but it's yours. Everyone has their own first audience. Once you believe in yourself then you're fine.”

Field trips round out the art program. In the past months, children visited a Van Gogh exhibit in Sarasota and went to The Pottery Patch in Valrico. New field trips are in the planning stage for the coming months.BAM! at the Carey Family Boys & Girls Club of Brandon uses art to help children develop self-esteem and build a foundation for future success in school.

McKeller treats the children who come to the club each day as her “babies.” It hurt to see what harm the pandemic did to their feelings about themselves, she says. Instead of talking and playing with friends, they shut down and worried about becoming sick. The lack of socializing impacted kindergarten-age children especially, she adds.

“My heart was broken,” McKeller says. “I spoke with a lot of parents. Most of it came from fear, a place of confusion.”

Claudia Foster values the program for how much happier her son Marcus is. He is normally very sociable so wearing masks and staying home took a toll, she says. 

“He loves music,” she says. “He loves dancing. He’s very much an old soul.” 

Among his first art projects was a picture of his hand with comments about how
hands allow him to hug people and let him do the drawings he loves.

“It's sort of like he already had kind of an inclination in this direction, but this is letting him really expand and grow on what he really loves,” Claudia Foster says.

BAM! is designed to help children in the program feel uplifted and confident. That spills into other activities at the club, including other after-school programs in sports, culinary lessons or help with homework. McKeller says the children feel confident that, if they can do this in art now, they can go out for basketball or for the math program. 

“They are believing in themselves,” she says.

Testing is done when each child starts BAM! and then again later in the program to measure children’s self-esteem and to understand how they feel about themselves.
McKeller says testing covers results from March through September 2022. The pre-tests revealed numerous issues with self-esteem, but the outcomes exceeded expectations. Children who would crumple up their drawings out of embarrassment now are eager to put their artwork on display.

“Now they're begging for it to go on the showcase board or they're begging to know when is our next showcase so my parents can see it,” she says. “I don't care how great of a director you are and how wonderful of a teacher you are or magnificent of a parent you are sometimes when our babies are hurting, we need resources. It takes a village. So, this art program was that - the village of resources. And they're believing in themselves again. You know bullying has declined. The kids they know they're worth again.”

For more information, visit Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay and Children’s Board of Hillsborough County
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.