WOONSOCKET — After his regular classes at Woonsocket High School, Jamel Williams usually heads over to the RiverzEdge Arts Project in Market Square for hands-on training in silk-screen printing. But he couldn't make it yesterday.
He was too busy being honored by first lady Michelle Obama in Washington, D.C.
In a ceremony at the White House, the first lady bestowed the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards on 15 organizations, including RiverzEdge and the Providence-based Community Music Works.
The 17-year-old city resident accepted the award on behalf of RiverzEdge along with Rebekah Greenwald-Speck, executive director of the non-profit arts and career training program for at-risk youth.
“Standing with the First Lady of the United States at the White House and accepting this award was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'll never forget,” said Williams. “It showed me people recognize and value the arts and their power to change kids' lives.”
Williams said RiverzEdge is where he works and where “I make my life as an artist happen right now. I am really proud to be part of RiverzEdge and that RiverzEdge has won this award.”
The recipients were chosen from a pool of some 450 nominees representing after-school and out-of-school enrichment programs across the nation. The awards are administered by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
With Greenwald-Speck and Williams standing on either side of the First Lady, Mrs. Obama draped an arm warmly across Williams' shoulders as the award was announced at the lectern by George Stevens Sr., co-chairman of the PCAH.
Williams considered wearing one of the T-shirts he made at RiverzEdge to the occasion, but he ended up in a comparatively more ceremonious black shirt and sizzling pink tie. It turned about to be a great choice for a side-by-side with the First Lady, because she was wearing a dress that couldn't have matched Williams' neckwear more perfectly if it were scripted that way.
The ceremony opened with high praise for the honorees from the First Lady, who said they deserved recognition for developing innovative programs to foster academic success by engaging young people in the arts and humanities.
“These are experiences that will stick with our young people for the rest of their lives,” said Mrs. Obama. “You're also connecting them with mentors, college counselors. You're helping them become better people.”
The ceremony was streamed live over the Web by the White House communications bureau.
Brad Fesmire, the program director for RiverzEdge, said the non-profit program had the resources to fly just two representatives – Williams and Greenwald-Speck – to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony.
“It's very, very exciting,” he said. “It's a great honor, nor just for RiverzEdge, but for all of Woonsocket.”
The PCAH considers the humanities award the highest honor available to after-school enrichment programs in the nation, according to Fesmire. In addition to the national recognition, each of the recipients will receive a $10,000 stipend.
Jamel, he said, works after school in the RiverzEdge screen print studio, making T-shirts for holiday fairs, craft exhibits and for-profit boutique shops. Such programs are a topic of lively discussion among advocates for education reform, who say they reinforce the lessons of the classroom and keep at-risk children busy when they're most likely to get in trouble with drugs, negative peer pressure and other distractions.
RiverzEdge was founded in 2002 by youth development specialists, some of whom were associated with Boston's Artists for Humanity Program, said Fesmire. They were concerned with patterns of violence among “disaffected youth” and chose to launch a new program in Woonsocket because it was plagued with high rates of teen pregnancy, youth crime and high school dropout.
The program was established with just five students, but this year more than 50 are enrolled in RiverzEdge's arts-based training. Most are from Woonsocket, but students from Burrillville, North Smithfield and Cumberland also take part, said Fesmire.
Students are paid for the work they do at RiverzEdge, whose mission is to prepare them for careers in the arts with a blend of hands-on technical instruction and “entrepreneurship training,” according to Fesmire.
Along with partner agencies and other supporters of RiverzEdge, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine took note of the group's honor yesterday.
“By engaging and inspiring young people, RiverzEdge is giving them not just the vision but the skills to build a new and better life for themselves and their families, and for our community,” Fontaine said in a statement. “These are exactly the kinds of skills we want them to have to be able to succeed in school, in work and in life.”
Amie Kershaw, a board member for RiverzEdge and the vice president for public affairs at Citizens Bank, said she hopes the award calls attention “to the documented fact that programs like ours are, in fact, changing lives for not only our young people, but our community at large.”
On Friday, Fontaine is planning a big welcome home for the RiverzEdge honorees, starting with a press conference at 2 p.m. at The Depot, at the corner of Main and High streets. The formalities will be followed by a “Party for the Arts,” same location, from 5 to 7 p.m.