In addition to being a children’s book writer and illustrator (“Never Underestimate a Hermit Crab,” Silver Dragon Press), I, like most of you, have a ton of other things in my life. I have a full-time job (Director of Life Enrichment for Rydal Park Continuing Care Retirement Community); serve on some charitable boards (Katie’s Foundation for Child Safety, Abington Community Taskforce, Citizens and Police Together); and have a complicated freelance writing career (House & Home magazine, Philadelphia/Suburban Life magazines, occasional pieces for the Philadelphia Inquirer). Please know this has all been built over decades, so please don’t be too impressed.
But the part of my life that seems, at times, most bizarre to me is that I am an honest-to-goodness elected official. I am a school board director for the Abington School District, just outside of Philadelphia. Yep, I had signs on people’s lawns, had to debate folks, and stayed up very late one Tuesday night to see if I actually had enough folks crazy enough to vote for me. I did!
Now in the third year of my four-year term (re-election next year…sigh), every other Tuesday night I sit on a dais with a microphone, sitting in a comfortable chair, and help make decisions on the future of children in my township. This includes my own son, Aidan, 10, about whom I have been able to write monthly columns for 11 years (“Dadography,” published until this month, the last edition of Parents Express magazine). I watch as wide-eyed children come into the room to get awards, hear great stories of the education our district has been blessed to be able to provide, and—occasionally—get yelled at by parents for a variety of things.
The great thing about being a school board director for Abington at this point in time is that we are very lucky to have a board, superintendent, administration, and community that really believes in the power of the arts. Where many districts have been forced to cut programs, long ago the superintendent and board members much smarter than me began to lay the groundwork for a serious dedication to writing, painting, music, theater and on and on. In fact, whereas many districts believe in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), we have added “the Arts” to make it STEAM. It’s not just a shtick, though. We make sure the Arts are alive and well in Abington.
From awards for writing excellence, to district-wide art shows, to our own “house band” of teachers who perform at events, we put the arts front and center. We have several plays performed by students during the school year, actively have our students out in the community, and each school in the district performs several concerts each year, including string, choral and wind instruments. In short, the Arts are everywhere around Abington.
As a writer and illustrator, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Arts by going into classrooms and speaking to kids about writing and drawing. I’ve been the “mystery readers” and special guest at awards, and have spoken to all age groups about the power of the word and a great illustration. No, I don’t get paid, but to connect with the kids and to extol the virtues of it all is awesome. To draw my hermit crab characters and then have 100 children try drawing their versions—with many creative tangents—is about as much fun as a fella can have.
I even donated copies of my book to every school, to remind kids that they can one day do it, too, if they work hard and want it bad enough. After all, I attended school here myself from second grade-on, so I figuratively and literally was once in their seat, a young child dreaming of the future.
If you are a writer and/or illustrator, even an unpublished one, consider approaching your school district about being part of their Arts programming. Offer to read to young children, draw with art classes, talk about your true experiences in the industry with older ones. If they have a “Dr. Seuss Day,” see if you can be part of it.
If your district is struggling financially, see if you can help them revive interest or volunteer to be part of an afterschool education project. Maybe see if they’d like to do a “book project,” where they all read the same one and meet about it. Or help publish the kids by starting a program where young writers submit creative works and you edit them and get them put in a collection (hit up local businesses to support this through donations). If your district cannot or will not do this with you, seek out local religious organizations, Boy/Girl Scouts, or area art centers who probably have art programs for children already begun.
The fact is, in order to help children be creative and to become creative adults, they need adult mentors. They need school districts that support the Arts, they need communities that encourage the Arts, and they need elected officials who believe in the Arts. By doing this, you help transform your community, bringing in positive energy, unseen beauty, and the self-realization of children. Art changes everything and everyone. But it needs you to grow.