By Grace Allen
Can an art class teach empathy? Jennifer Callei thinks so. She’s the instructor for Project Kindness, an art class for children held through Norfolk Recreation.
“I think it’s important that kids learn how to give back,” said Callei. “In the last few years, it seems like so many people have been struggling and so I want to, in a kid-friendly way, create opportunities to uplift others through art.”
Callei, an educator, has been teaching art and theatre classes through Norfolk Recreation for ten years. But it was her own illness—she has chronic Lyme disease—that cemented the need in her mind to specifically focus an art class on helping people in the community. The class, she decided, would both support people in need and also acknowledge and thank organizations that assist others.
“In my opinion, art can be healing and art always has some type of message,” explained Callei. “Everyone needs a hug sometimes, and similarly I think everyone needs a piece of art some times. We have so many different senses and when we look at something pleasing or positive, it can boost our mood, it can inspire us, and it can make us feel better if we’re going through a hard time.”
The class, a new offering from Norfolk Recreation this past school year, is geared for students in Grades 3-6. In the fall and winter sessions, the class decided which organizations and people to help and thank through art. Some of the projects included creating art bags containing craft projects for children entering the foster care system; making cards and donating art supplies for the children of a local family that lost almost everything in a fire; and designing and constructing a quilt for the Norfolk Police Department, to thank them for helping the community. The students even made a fleece blanket for Officer Mitch, the department’s community resource dog.
Callei receives infusions at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to treat her Lyme disease, so the students created a binder of inspirational art photos and messages for patients going through chemotherapy.
“I know what it’s like to just sit there, and during COVID, we had to come alone,” said Callei. “We’ve talked about this during class, and the kids understand how people can be worried or scared, and maybe not feeling well while there. And looking at art can help a little bit.”
During the spring session of Project Kindness, the class held a fundraiser. The students decided to help senior citizens in town, so they created art and then asked friends and families for donations of any amount in exchange for a piece of art. The students raised $500, which they presented to the Norfolk Senior Center at a ceremony held on June 28.
“We definitely did not expect to raise that much money,” said Callei. “I told the students, You might have people who are not interested but you need to tell them thank you and have a nice day. I told them some people might give you $1 or $2 and others might give you much more. And that’s exactly what happened. This was a great lesson for the kids.”
Becky Poynot, Outreach Coordinator for the Norfolk Senior Center, said the money will be dispersed to seniors in need of funds for house repairs or maintenance, enabling them to stay and live independently in their homes for as long as possible.
Callei, who studied education and theatre at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, has been teaching for twenty years. Students in Project Kindness, ages 8 to 11, are at a stage of emotional and social development where they can relate to the struggles of others and translate that compassion into action. And that makes the class concept work, she believes.
“Their art skills are more advanced, first of all,” said Callei, “And they can understand and grasp the issues we discuss. They’re at an age that’s ready, on a certain level, to learn about and recognize what’s happening in the world around us. And through that, this class can teach and demonstrate empathy.”
Norfolk Recreation’s fall brochure will be mailed to Norfolk residents in mid-August and programs will be online soon after. Visit https://norfolk.activityreg.com
to register a child for the fall session of Project Kindness or to be placed on a wait list, if necessary, for the popular class. At press time, Callei was considering opening the class to Grade 7 students, also.