By Taylor Rankin
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
The workroom buzzes with the whirs of sewing machines and the excited chatter of a slew of teenagers. The group of about 20 students, ages 12 to 18, has been at school all day, and they have just finished a homework hour at SeeSaw Studio on West Geer Street in Durham. Now it’s time to get creative, and the fruits of their labor surround them on the walls of the rather industrial space SeeSaw calls home, inspiring them to express themselves through their artistic talents.
Another inspiration sits just a room away in a small office decorated proudly with the students’ creations from dresses to sketches. Her name is Michelle Gonzales-Green, and she has championed the mission of SeeSaw Studio since 2007, when she began her responsibilities as director.
It’s basically a one-woman show at SeeSaw Studio. Michelle mentors, instructs, answers emails and, at the end of a long day, sweeps the floors. She talks to the press, finds volunteers and manages finances at the small nonprofit. She’s also a mother, a wife and an advocate for afterschool programs across the state—programs that are struggling to stay afloat in these tough economic times.
Despite her best efforts, however, SeeSaw Studio will be ending its independent status as a nonprofit organization at the end of 2011. Gonzales-Green says they couldn’t survive the budget cuts, increased costs and staff shortages that are synonymous with recession.
“Nonprofit itself is bleeding,” Gonzales-Green says.
SeeSaw Studio was recently confronted with a “perfect storm” of challenges. The owners of the space Gonzales-Green rents on West Geer Street wanted to re-purpose a portion of it for their own use. In order to respond to their own needs in the current economic climate, they were also planning to increase rent on the rest of the space that would remain SeeSaw’s, says Gonzales-Green.
SeeSaw Studio’s volunteer staff was also dwindling. People have less time to contribute outside of work when a paycheck is so important to surviving a recession, says Gonzales-Green.
Gonzales-Green herself will have more on her plate because of a recent honor—an honor that has become a silver lining in the face of dark times.
Gonzales-Green has been chosen as an afterschool ambassador by the Afterschool Alliance program for 2011-2012. The national program seeks to raise awareness about the importance of afterschool programming. The organization argues that the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the peak hours for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex. More than 15 million school-age children are on their own after school, according to literature provided by Afterschool Alliance.
Gonzales-Green is just one of 20 ambassadors chosen nationwide for the honor. Her tasks will include organizing public events, communicating with policy makers and building support for afterschool programs.
She has already gotten started, successfully coordinating a “Lights On Afterschool” event for the Durham area to raise awareness about the importance of afterschool education.
Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant says that Gonzales-Green “will bring great skill and energy to her role as an Afterschool Ambassador.”
Gonzales-Green is also a mother, and there may be no greater advocate of her successes than her daughter, Hadassah, who at 9 years old is the unofficial mascot for SeeSaw Studio.
“Here is something my mom drew,” said Hadassah as she flipped through a portfolio at SeeSaw Studio. “Isn’t it great? She has a show coming up in January.”
Gonzales-Green looks forward to devoting more of her time to her own daughter’s development but is saddened to think about how many children don’t have that luxury she claims is due to the failure of the government to recognize completely the need for afterschool education.
“I know as a former single parent the ‘crucialness’ of being able to work and knowing my children are in a safe place,” Gonzales-Green said.
The SeeSaw Studio idea isn’t entirely dying. Thanks to the relentless efforts of Gonzales-Green and the attractiveness of the SeeSaw nonprofit model, SpiritHouse Inc., a Durham-based cultural organizing collective, has agreed to incorporate aspects of SeeSaw Studio into their own afterschool programming.
After raising the money to cover SeeSaw Studio’s current debts, Gonzales-Green will donate the remaining equipment as well as her skills as a mentor to SpiritHouse.
SeeSaw will hold a design sale at the studio on West Geer Street on Saturday, Dec. 3, when all of their equipment and the students’ designs will be for sale. A $5 admission will also go toward paying off SeeSaw’s debts.
Because of Gonzales-Green’s efforts, SeeSaw Studio has done better than most NGOs, and even faced with the harsh realities of closing, will continue to serve children after school through the labors of the more established SpiritHouse.