Providing creative mentorship to low-income children

Art Buddies inspires underprivileged kids with the power of creativity

Through the non-profit Art Buddies program, creative professionals mentor students and partner on artistic projects that build confidence and help young people imagine future careers. Submitted photo

The Twin Cities is home to more than 100 mentorship programs for underprivileged kids. But unlike the kinds of educational, cultural, and recreational opportunities these programs typically provide for at-risk youth, Art Buddies uses one-on-one mentoring to harness the power of creativity in underprivileged children.

The non-profit organization has been pairing volunteer mentors who work in creative industries with low-income children since 1994. Over the course of six to 10 weeks, each pair collaborates on a project that challenges kids to use their imagination to design and build a costume that reflects their interests and dreams, utilizing a “Buddy Book” to brainstorm and plan their ideas. The project, which takes place every spring and fall, culminates in a parade and presentation of the finished creations.

“It helps them think creatively and problem solve,” explained Amy Jarrard, who has been on the Art Buddies advisory board for more than four years and volunteered for the organization for nearly 20 years. “They get to see through a project, week to week, through to completion and learn how to present in front of a large group.”

In turn, the mentors offer guidance and assistance.

“We’re here to help them bring their vision to life,” said Jarrard.

Most of Art Buddies’ mentors work in a creative field, such as advertising, graphic design, commercial photography, illustration or architecture. Throughout the six-to-eight-week run of the program, mentors speak about their jobs in front of the group, showing it’s possible to make a living by being creative.

The project was originally founded as Creatives for Causes by award-winning designer Sue Crolick, who was inspired to start the project after organizing an event for kids at a local shelter. The event brought in hundreds of volunteers from the Minnesota chapter of AIGA, a professional association for designers.

“I sensed a big reservoir of talent and goodwill within our creative community, waiting to be tapped,” Crolick said.

Although it started as a weekend program at various facilities, Crolick realized the project would have the biggest impact as an after-school program for 3rd- to 5th-grade students. It partnered with Whittier International Elementary in 1998, selected because 90 percent of its low-income students received free or reduced-cost lunch.

In 2011, Art Buddies hired Scott Mikesh, a creative business owner, former mentor and member of its advisory board, to help expand the program to a second school, Bancroft Elementary in Minneapolis, doubling the number of children served. In 2013, Crolick stepped down, and Mikesh was selected as her successor. Two years later, Art Buddies expanded once again, adding Riverview West Side School of Excellence in St. Paul to its roster.

The organization relies on financial contributions from individuals and businesses for more than half of its funding, with the remainder coming from government grants and private foundations. Art Buddies receives $80,000 a year of in-kind donations from various service providers, professional photographers and Carmichael Lynch, which donates office space, postage, printing and internet. (Crolick was the advertising agency’s first employee, and many Carmichael Lynch employees are AIGA members.)

Art Buddies will begin recruiting mentors for its spring programs in February. One returning mentor will be Lauren Bowe, a project manager for Evine Live who has participated in the program for the past two years. Bowe recalled one child, David, who she was paired with last year.

“David didn’t seem like he had an easy home life,” she said. “He really confided in me, and would tell me about his day, or what he was doing.”

When Bowe and David first started working together, she said he had a lot of ideas but didn’t know how to make them happen. She encouraged him to try piecing things together himself.

“It was empowering,” she said. “He could see that he could have an idea and make it come to life.”

While it’s difficult to quantify the impact of Art Buddies in measurables, evaluations and anecdotal observations indicate the program is an invaluable experience for the kids who participate.

“We’ll get reports on kids’ behavior improving and they start trying harder in school,” said Mikesh. “At the end of the program, they feel so proud, and they take that confidence into their other schoolwork.”

In 2016, Art Buddies piloted its first licensed satellite program through a partnership with AIGA Dallas/Fort Worth, and hopes to eventually bring Art Buddies to other cities. Due to popular demand from both mentors and kids, this year the program is adding another day at Whittier, adding another 60 kids into the mix.

“We’re really fortunate that the Twin Cities is such a creative hub, and Minnesotans are so philanthropic and eager to get involved in community service,” said Mikesh. “Those two things combined are why Art Buddies flourishes here.”

What you can do

Volunteer as an Art Buddy, especially if you work in advertising, commercial photography, illustration, PR, web design, architecture or film production. Applications will be available in February at

The organization also accepts donations on a one-time or sustaining basis. Funds cover direct program costs, including art supplies, storage, staff and operations.


By the numbers

2,000: Number of volunteers recruited to date

250: Number of kids served by Art Buddies annually

1-to-1: Student-to-mentor ratio

80: Percentage of participating students that are children of color

6–10: Number of weeks each Art Buddies program lasts


CORRECTION: The original version of this post misstated Amy Jarrard’s role with Art Buddies. Jarrard serves on the organization’s advisory board, not its board of directors.