The UNITY Center
Working with Roswell youth was my first real job, and in most ways, has stayed my real job ever since. In 1995, I was an artist in residence with the Roswell Museum and Art Center Foundation. During that time, I learned what it meant to be a youth worker. As an instructor with the museum's education department, under the guidance of Curator of Education Robyn Einhorn, I led a range of classes for youth and teens. One of the first projects we undertook was a large-scale mural on the side of the museum annex. Completed over the course of a summer with support from kids classes, and a team of teens under the supervision of court services advocates, this was my first exposure to the abilities, interests and diverse experiences of young people from our small New Mexico community.
After my residency ended, thanks to the recommendation and support from Robyn and others in the museum community, I was invited to join a team that was developing an independent youth center on Roswell's west side. Called the UNITY Center by the young people who founded it, the program was located in an amazing 1940's civil airfield terminal, complete with control tower and landing field. Abandoned for several years, the city agreed to lease it to our group for a dollar a year, as long as improvements were made, and quality youth programming was offered.
The program grew, and so did our need for community support. I met Dale Bohren in 1998, as I was (poorly) developing a shop-based art program inspired by (and completely supported by) Sally and Don Anderson. Dale, a retired sales professional and avid golfer, had extensive experience as a picture framer and had recently parted ways with the Roswell Adult Center, where he had built a highly successful framing program. He was my mentor, and guided me through the process of developing the operational and technical start of a small picture framing project. Our hopes were to engage young people in the assembly of picture frames, wooden gifts and accessories. We only had access to old construction debris, a very rickety Craftsman table saw, and a Rockwell miter saw. Dale showed us how to make frames - the right way - and we began painting them and offering them for sale through the advocacy of Mike and Toni Pemberton and their local frame shop. The name - Phat Frames - came from the kids - and the fact that they were made from 2x4's. At some point, we were encouraged to set up a table at the Chili Cheese Festival (named after two big industries in the area, followed only by oil, gas, alfalfa and pecans) and promptly sold out. We also happened to be visited at that event by a representative of the Levi Strauss Foundation - they had recently decided to shutter the Levis plant on the south end of town, which was a devastating move economically - and next thing we knew, there was a three-year, $100K+ grant made to our little project.
Years passed, the green movement took hold, and our small project was lovingly carried along by many community supporters. We struggled, but succeeded, in sourcing reclaimed framing lumber - from the local municipal dump, and as stock grew thin, as far away as Albuquerque. We traveled all across New Mexico, and into neighboring states, selling Phat Frames, and the mission to support the UNITY Center. Our young staff were amazing entrepreneurs - they created new products and built retail contacts at an alarming rate. Our products were picked up by generous sales representatives and brought to national parks and New Mexico cultural centers, and a couple of catalog companies (Gaiam and Sundance) found us. Other NM businesses contracted with us to produce containers and display items. All of this from a small shop, running on 110V power and an overworked air compressor. Many young people were hired and worked in our shop, some as part of a juvenile justice initiative, some as their first jobs, some as volunteers. Adults were always willing to lend a hand, and solve significant technical challenges - Dale was an amazing mentor to Jared and Jason, who stayed with the program for several years. It was a phenomenal experience, and at one point, we broke even.
After six years, several program directors, a skate park being built next door, regional bands and DJ's cutting their teeth at our weekend community parties, and the ups and downs of life, I followed Robyn Einhorn (who I happened to had fallen in love with) to Washington DC, and started a new venture with Covenant House Washington. Robyn, the UNITY Center, Phat Frames, Dale Bohren and the young people I worked with molded me into the youth worker and craftsperson that I am today.