‘Create It Forward’: An artistic outlet for incarcerated youth

'Create It Forward': An artistic outlet for incarcerated youth

Art has the power to transform. And what better place to see transformation than in a juvenile detention center, where each individual is an unfinished work of art, with the potential to become a masterpiece. One way to ignite this transformation is by providing incarcerated youth with opportunities to learn and thrive.

One such opportunity is “Create It Forward,” which offers creative outlets to youth in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CJDC). It focuses on crafting art to benefit someone in need. For example, in March, the students painted Easter eggs, which were then used in an egg hunt for the families at Haven Home.  At Christmas time, students made cards for children at the Cleveland Clinic. They’ve also engaged in sculpting, creative writing, cupcake decorating, gingerbread house making and screen printing. Last week, the students learned about surrealism and created a rubbing from a textured surface.

“Create it Forward” is a collaboration between Cleveland’s SPACES, a nonprofit focusing on local artists and art classes, and Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, who leads classes at CJDC. Švigelj-Smith teaches her students through social and emotional learning, or SEL. Along with art projects, her lesson plans include daily reflections, stress-reducing exercises and inspirational stories.

'Create It Forward': An artistic outlet for incarcerated youth

During its first year of operation, the 2016-17 school year, SPACES worked with 10 local artists and four arts organizations to provide 15 on-site art workshops at CJDC, with 13 students in each class. Next year, they will expand the program to five classrooms. Because the participants frequently come and go, it’s difficult to see direct effects of this program in its early stages, but feedback from students has been promising.

“My favorite was cartooning and sculpting because it gave me the idea to start writing my first book,” says one student. While making gingerbread houses, another student says he couldn’t wait to teach his daughter how to make one when he got out. Along with the artistic experience, students overwhelmingly agreed that one of their favorite things about these classes is the opportunity to help others.

“We utilize the power of art to hopefully enact social change,” says Michelle Epps, community engagement manager of SPACES, about its mission.  Epps says one of the biggest challenges for this program is choosing art supplies that can pass the security check at CJDC. Nothing metal or sharp can be brought in, so the teachers have to think outside the art box and be creative with what projects they choose.

“Despite what people think about kids in juvenile detention, the young men have always been respectful and open to learning new things,” Epps says. “Working with these students has been one of the single most impactful programs I’ve ever worked on.”



  1. Share your artistic talent. If you’re an artist and would like to learn more about teaching a “Create It Forward” class, contact executive director Christina Vassallo at cvassallo@SPACESgallery.org.
  2. Donate art supplies. Do you have some extra paper, paint, markers or glue around the house? The program is always in need of extra supplies.




Share on Social

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on google
Share on pinterest


Looking for stories that challenge, change and inspire? We've got you covered. Never miss a post!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Keep in Touch

WISH Cleveland Leadership Center