AHHAH stands for Arts Holding Hands and Hearts but it has another meaning, one that moved Jan to entitle her organization after that meaning and utilize her talents. Jan’s background, first as an actress for twenty years in New York City and then as a teaching artist in Philadelphia, helped shape her thought process and develop her first-hand appreciation for the positive effects that the arts have on children and education. She got her Masters in Education and dedicated her thesis to answering the question, “Does an arts infused curriculum enhance the academic success of students labeled at-risk?” Not surprisingly she knew what her research would show. When teaching in inner city Philadelphia, funding for the arts was cut. Here was her AH HAH moment… She said, “If the school system doesn’t believe that children in poverty deserve an arts education and are just going to funnel them into the prison system, then we need to bring the arts to youth in detention and prison. Neither of the organizations I worked for worked in the juvenile justice system, so I said I would open my own organization,” and open it she did.
Responding to that AHHAH moment, which came to her through her everyday journaling exercises, she asked around to see if someone could get her into the prison system legally and found where she could begin. The Chester County Youth Center that houses a shelter for homeless and abused girls and the detention center for both boys and girls became her first target. She began a three month yoga trial there, before yoga was touted for the benefits that it has today, and then a six week creative writing program. Overwhelmingly, all of the girls in the shelter were from Coatesville. The heartfelt responses from these girls in her writing program incited her to make Coatesville her home base to see if they could stop the systematic flow of youth there into the juvenile justice system. How could one not be affected and moved by some of the responses her creative program elicited? One girl wrote, “I am the daughter of a teenage mother, who was the daughter of a teenage mother, who was the daughter of a teenage mother, with no father in sight.” Another wrote about being raped at 12 by her uncle but forgave him so she wouldn’t be the one “imprisoned”.
In 2015 AHHAH received the National Award from Juvenile Detention Centers and Alternative Programs for the programs AHHAH facilitates at Chester County Youth Center.
“Coatesville is a city of generational poverty, generational incarceration, generational teenage mothers. Our first grant was for an afterschool yoga and playwriting program at Scott Middle School. While working at Scott, I was invited to visit one of the elementary schools because children in kindergarten were being suspended. It was an AHHAH moment, that I realized by middle school, even by elementary school, it was too late. If we wanted to stop the systemic “cradle to prison” pipeline, we needed to reach children 0-5 years of age and their caregivers.
We started a Family Story Time Yoga for children 2-5 and their caregivers at Coatesville Library. One of the participant’s mothers works for Early Start and asked if we would bring our program to Head Start. AHHAH now brings Story Time Yoga and a mindfulness program to 400 children in Head Start in Chester County. We have a Senior Ambassador Program, where seniors “adopt” a Head Start and read to the classes monthly. We purchase new books twice a year to give each child for their home library. Children in an impoverished household are exposed to 30 million words less by the time they are 5 than a child in a middle class household and many children are arriving to kindergarten two years behind. That statistic was the inspiration behind the P.U.L.L. (Pop Up Lending Library) Campaign. We knew we needed to get books in the hands of every child in Coatesville. 2015 was Coatesville’s Centennial. My goal was to get 100 pop up lending libraries wherever little children gathered, barbershops, laundry mats, churches, WIC office, parks. People said it couldn’t be done. We now have over 100 PULL stations both indoor and outdoor wooden structures throughout Chester County. We have collected and distributed over 58,000 books. ” - Jan Michener, Founder of AHHAH
Written by Meg Veno - Life's Patina