It’s hard to believe Jamie Barnes spent most of last summer in her room. The vivacious 15 year old bounces from topic to topic as we chat in the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy’s Art Studio. Bubbly and warm, she’s excited by each person who walks through door, often jumping up to give them a hug. Throughout our time at the studio, numerous people walk through the doors for one of the many programs that the Academy offers: storytelling, strings, drawing, painting and even rock band practices take place in the Academy’s space.
“I love coming here because everyone’s so positive and just themselves,” says Jamie. “There’s no judgement; you can just be who you are here.”
That vibe is intentional, explains Heather Wagner, the Music and Arts Studio Director at the Academy. “I want this to be a place where people feel they can be authentic, where kids can be themselves and express who they are,” she says. “I want the kids to feel that when they’re here they can be who they are,” she says. “They can come here and do their art and their music and they’re never going to be ridiculed. That this is a place where they can come and be at home.”
Jamie explains that she was attracted to that sense of openness when she first came to the Academy for a friend’s birthday party almost a year ago. “I just felt like I had to be here all the time,” she recalls. Jamie convinced her mother to pay the $80 a year enrollment fee, and began taking art classes at the Academy. But the allure of the space kept her there well outside of class time – she quickly found herself coming in to volunteer, helping with younger kids and exploring the music offerings.
“I was pretty antisocial before I started coming to the Academy,” explains Jamie. “Now I sing in a band and help with recordings and art classes. I would never have been able to do all of this if the Academy wasn’t here.” Because she doesn’t always have a ride to get her to the Academy, Jamie often walks the 1.3 miles from her high school. She shrugs that feat off, “it’s just what I have to do if I want to be here and don’t have a ride.”
But Jamie’s mom says that her daughter’s commitment to the organization doesn’t surprise her. She explains, “Jamie had a hard time finding a place where she really felt she belonged, and she has found that at the Arts Academy. She’s really come out of her shell.”
“When Jamie was in middle school she struggled with depression and some anxiety; and it was hard to find a place where she could connect with others and that was really her home base,” she recalls. “There was a lot of sadness with her and that’s always hard, as a parent, to watch your child struggle with that and feel not understood by others.”
But that’s changed for Jamie now, as she’s integrated herself into the Arts Academy community. “Now that I have this place I can put myself into my art,” she says. “And it’s nice to express yourself that way. This place is amazing; it’s not fair how amazing it is.”