Identifying Through Art: Migrant Students Find Their Voice with Growing Young Artists

The cost-free Growing Young Artists (GYA) program continues this summer at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (400 Culver Street). While their parents are harvesting produce in West Michigan, migrant children in pre-K through 8th grade will have the opportunity to raise their voices and make their mark through this project-based learning program created by the SCA.

Now in its sixth year, GYA uses creativity-infused project-based learning (PBL) to deliver key life skills to approximately 150 “at risk” migrant students in Allegan and Van Buren Counties. PBL delivers value around “hard skills” including language and literacy fluency, math and science, as well as critical “soft skills” such as problem solving, team building, communication skills and empathy. By expanding experiences beyond traditional textbook learning with a professional artist and plunging students into experiential hands-on situations, students will develop deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career, and civic life.

“The Saugatuck Center for the Arts (SCA) is committed to Growing Young Artists because all young people deserve access to innovative learning experiences,” said SCA Executive Director Kristin Armstrong. “Migrant children are under the radar — most of us are unaware that they’re living in our communities each summer and going to school while they’re here. These children deserve access to the same programs our own children benefit from. Thanks to a group of dedicated sponsors, we are able to offer this program, free of charge, to our educational partners.”

These children follow their parents to West Michigan’s fruit belt to harvest for the summer, moving from school to school and state to state throughout the year.  Via GYA, the SCA partners with Fennville and South Haven schools’ summer programs to bridge the gap for these children who often struggle to meet core academic standards.

“We could not offer this program to our students without the generosity and vision of the SCA. We simply don’t have the resources or the expertise that the SCA shares with our students every summer,” said Fennville Education Director Corey Harbaugh. “The opportunity the SCA provides our students to work with a professional artist communicates nothing less than respect for these kids as artists and thinkers. Our students are invited and inspired by SCA every summer to do real art with real artists, and we are grateful.”

The SCA employs a multi-layered, bilingual teaching team comprised of working professionals, college students studying education with varying experience, as well as middle and high school interns for the GYA program. Teachers and interns team up in pairs to teach the GYA programming to students, and along the way also impact the SCA Artist in Residence, the other teachers in Fennville and South Haven, and even each other.  “We’ve discovered that this model is so rich in learning opportunities that everyone involved is positively impacted,” said Armstrong.

“I’m grateful for the ability to make these students feel important,” said Fennville Migrant Teacher Kate Godwin. “After Growing Young Artists, students have the tools, experience, and pride – I hope they continue with their self-reflections and creativity, making their dreams a reality after they leave Fennville. I also hope the GYA experience reinforces that the future is wide open for them.”

This summer’s GYA program includes arts-infused field trips and the opportunity to work alongside the Saugatuck Center for the Arts’ Artist in Residence Rubén Aguirre. Aguirre, Chicago artist who focuses on public artwork, will teach the students about cultural connection, relationship building, empowerment, and celebrating their own stories. Students will make their mark and leave a positive impact on Saugatuck by helping Aguirre create a public mural on the west wall of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts building.

During the four-week GYA program, students complete one drawing prompt and one writing prompt daily, building a portfolio. The goal is to empower the students to think about who they are, what they want to say and to realize that they have the ability to leave permanent, positive “marks” on their community. The students will create individual paintings, representing their stories, which will go into two collaborative panels: one to remain at their school and one to be installed on the SCA public mural. Aguirre will then take the two schools’ panels and attach them to the SCA mural, filling in the empty spaces with his own designs, allowing the children – who are often “invisible” – to truly make a mark on our community.

“Rubén has this admirable gravitas about him and an immense amount of talent, we’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him this summer. His evolution as an artist is fascinating and his creative experiences will seamlessly engage him with our West Michigan migrant youth,” said SCA Education & Exhibitions Manager Whitney Valentine. “During this summer’s program, we’re posing important questions about the students’ identity, their culture and how they want to visually leave their mark on the world. I look forward to watching how deeply Rubén impacts the lives of the students, my staff, and our community over the next month.”

For more information about GYA and other SCA outreach programming, visit or call (269) 857-2399.

Sponsored by Meijer, Allegan County Community Foundation, Louis & Helen Padnos Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Outstate Michigan, Keith Walker, Becky & John Fulgoni.