YEPAW encourages youth to pursue lifestyles of excellence through the arts

Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop (YEPAW) got its first start when founder and artistic director Leslie Barnes had a conversation with a friend who claimed that the youth generation at the time – 1990 – was a lost and hopeless one. Barnes disagreed, and decided to prove her friend wrong.
Barnes brought 50 young people together every evening for a week to learn 10 gospel songs and present them at a concert at the end of that week. The group was called the Youth Excellence Gospel Choir, coming out of Barnes’s background as a minister and theologian who sees gospel music as a way to bring people together in a way that is creative and collaborative.
Each year the group grew and grew from 50 to 100 to 300 kids. Finally it became YEPAW, now in its twenty-sixth year, incorporating many different kinds of artistic disciplines in addition to gospel music – though each year at summer camp the kids all still learn and perform a gospel choir song together as a group.
“We encourage youth through the arts to pursue lifestyles of excellence,” says YEPAW Executive Director and alumni Alexandra Wright. “We use arts to teach kids that they can excel in any area of their lives: academically, at home in their communities. Anything they put their minds to they can accomplish. We use arts to teach them that they can do anything.”
YEPAW has a partnership with the University of Akron to house the kids on campus and use the University’s theatre space for a week each year in July. During that week, between 200 and 300 kids ages 12-21 converge on the campus and work at their creative practice for more than 12 hours a day.
The kids are immersed in classes all day and can choose from 16 different areas of focus, including dance, creative writing, drama, orchestra, visual arts, drum line, and photography. Because YEPAW is a faith-based organization, spirituality is also an element of the curriculum with inspirational devotionals to start each morning, though it is not a prerequisite for any child or family to come from a particular faith background.
“Our target is inner city at-risk youth, but we want all kids to be exposed to the program regardless of their ethnicity or religious background,” says Wright.
YEPAW alumni have gone on to be doctors, nurses, and teachers overseas. “Kids who have come through this program are doing some incredible things,” Wright says. “Our staff is largely from the program. We give back to the program and are thankful for it. When we see kids go off to college and…finally step into the careers they’ve been dreaming about, that’s the rewarding side of what we do.”
The gospel roots are still a part of the program as well, and each day after lunch the kids attend a mass choir rehearsal. That is followed by “a time of renewal,” in which different people from the community come in and talk to the kids about leadership; community engagement; arts awareness; responsible use of social media; abstinence from sex, drugs, and alcohol; and anything else that might be important in developing young leaders.
“Our overall goal is to teach them about making good decisions and how the decisions they make now affect them later,” Wright explains. “We’re teaching them about being responsible citizens of the community.”
Evening classes and another choir practice follow the guest speakers, and the kids give a small concert about midway through the week at Haven of Rest, a non-denominational Christian social services organization that provides food, clothing, and shelter for the homeless and needy in Akron. “This teaches the kids it’s important not just to receive a service, but it’s also important to give back to the community in a meaningful way,” says Wright.
She says they “work work work” until Saturday, when they are sent home to get some rest before the Sunday concert.
The Sunday community concert at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, with about 3,000 people in attendance, is the culmination of their week of learning and training. At this event all of the different classes present what they have worked on over the week, whether they learned a dance routine or created an art project.
“This teaches kids they can learn all this in a week’s time because they put their minds to it. And if you can do that in a week, what can you do in a full year?” The underlying message, Wright says, is encouraging kids to stay focused and committed to school and put their minds to their schoolwork in the same way they put their minds to the work in this week-long summer camp.
Admission to the summer camp is open to everyone who fills out the application and pays the registration fee of $220. The cost per child for this camp is actually $780, but much of it is subsidized through grant money from organizations including the Akron Community Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council, the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation, and the Knight Foundation. They do have interested families who have a difficult time affording the registration cost, so YEPAW does everything they can to find scholarship assistance so they don’t ever have to turn a student away for an inability to pay.
“We deal with the challenge of inner city youth,” Wright says. “Although we are not a social services organization, we do a lot of that. If we have kids who have transportation issues, the staff are picking them up and dropping them off. We do it all. We feel like we’re making a pretty great impact on greater Akron.”
In addition to the original YEPAW summer camp, there is now also WEPAW for little kids ages 4-11. This is a three-day arts experience in July that lasts from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and includes choral music and rhythm and movement study. They also get to sing one song with the “big kids.”
“We wanted to start teaching little kids appreciation for the arts at a young age and developing a feeder into the larger program,” explains Wright. WEPAW gets about 90 children and is in its third year. “We’re excited about that program and fostering an appreciation for the arts in kids as young as four.”
YEPAW isn’t only active in the summer. The organization also runs the Knight-funded YEPAW 365 leadership and arts awareness academy, focused on leadership as well as arts and cultural engagement. This year-round program is open to kids enrolled in middle school and high school, roughly ages 11-18.
The kids are exposed to a lot in the 365 program; previous years have taken the kids to see theatre performances on Broadway, a leadership academy in Disney, and master classes with Yo-Yo Ma. Kids in the program meet with facilitators weekly from September through May, learning leadership skills and how everyone is a leader in their own way. “With this group we really do a lot of community engagement and volunteering,” Wright says. “The community in Akron is really supportive of YEPAW so we always want to make sure the kids in the community are always give back to them.”
YEPAW has about 50 kids annually in the 365 program, but the criteria is a bit more selective than that of the summer camp.
“We really want to develop leadership skills and [teach the kids how to] be more involved in the community,” says Wright. “We want the kids who are really serious, though I do take kids who maybe aren’t that serious but show some potential. When you’re in the 7th grade you might not be that serious about [leadership] but could still use some direction. I’m always an advocate for the underdog! I’ll say, ‘She’s gonna be great, you watch what I tell you!” They’re not always only the perfect kids; I was a less-than-perfect one, too.”
After 10 years with YEPAW and three years as Executive Director, whoever took the chance on a less-than-perfect Wright clearly made the right decision, as she is, by her own testimony, a testament of the program’s success.