One organization ramps up meal provision during COVID-19, while keeping arts and opportunity in place for kids.
By Jennifer Morrell
It was back in 2007 when Ty and Chris Woods decided to make a real difference in their community. What began with 40 kids in a small apartment for Bible study and camaraderie has evolved into Atlanta-based Artportunity Knocks. As executive director, Ty Woods wanted to preserve the arts for community children and strive to keep the content clean and positive. Artportunity Knocks’ mission is to empower youths to make constructive and smart choices, while increasing opportunities in the arts, education, community service, and bridging cultures. Ty and her spouse, Chris, co-founded and operate the organization together.
Artportunity Knocks consists of four program categories: The Arts offers more than 12 forms of art in one place. Education is designed to use creativity to open the minds of the learner. Healthy Kids is a program that addresses the “whole child,” to include meeting physiological and social-emotional development. Professional Development teaches teachers how to incorporate the arts into their Common Core curriculum.
Making a difference
Woods stresses the importance of after-school programs, with Artportunity Knocks Afterschool supporting more than just arts education. “We support the whole child, providing physiological, social, emotional, cognitive and academic support through the entire year,” Ty says. “Our afterschool programs can provide a significant return on investment, with every $1 invested saving at least $3 through increasing each youth’s earning potential. This improves their performance at school and reduces crime, teen pregnancy and juvenile delinquency rates.”
In particular, Woods drives home the overwhelming benefits of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) programs to children’s educational opportunities. Reduced school and life success among low-income students has often been associated with reduced access to arts education. This limits opportunities to build socioemotional skills, including an understanding that skill results from practice, failure and recovery, in addition to natural talent.
“We believe that STEAM is central to academic success, and so if an education that does not feature the opportunity to develop, create, and explore, then their academic skills will not be well rounded,” she says. “At Artportunity Knocks, we provide consistent opportunities for students to develop into productive members of society through the access we give them to learn STEAM education.”
Woods adds that young people who are considered “at-risk” due to poverty may lack the experiences and opportunities that might foster socioemotional learning. These include sustained relationships with trusted adults outside of their families; quality, informal learning situations; experiences that consistently challenge them to excel; and safe environments for exploration.
“To no fault of their own, [at risk young people] may also lack opportunities to develop the ability to manage behavior and make effective decisions, strategies to form and maintain a positive self-concept, and the capacity to interact productively and positively with others,” she said. “These things may happen in certain contexts like family discussions, team sports or classroom interactions, but research shows that the arts provide a unique context for this type of learning to happen.”
The organization is funded through program fees, government grants, government contracts, corporate grants, individual donations, and family foundation grants. Since inception, Artportunity Knocks has served about 100,000 children, 3,000 of whom were helped in 2020. The organization employed 26 employees and 22 contractors in 2020 as well, showing significant job provision.
Reacting and adjusting to COVID-19
Like most businesses and organizations, Artportunity Knocks had to rethink how to meet community needs as the COVID-19 pandemic set in. “We made a strong pivot during 2020 to meet the needs of the community and to save the organization from closing,” Ty said.
To answer the call, four new programs were created. Learning Pods supports synchronous learners in a safe, small-group setting while the Online Academy gives access to arts education to students across the state of Georgia. STEAM n’ Meals, a partnership with the Department of Early Care and Learning (Bright from the Start), was able to deliver bags of meals loaded with an arts kit activity, so that kids would have something to create during the stay-at-home order. Beatknocks Conferences consist of a series of workshops hosted by music industry professionals in the music production and engineering field, whereby participants learn new and unique creative music processes.
As it turns out, COVID-19 and the lessons it brought resulted in positive outcomes. “We did everything differently, from teaching online, to creating virtual events,” Woods said. “What we learned is that we are resilient!”
Feeding more than 3,400 children during the pandemic — totaling roughly 84,000 meals from April through December — was an amazing achievement. “It started as a conversation with a parent who was concerned that they would not have enough food, since the kids were going to be home all day,” Ty said. “Then we saw the advertisement that the state was looking for providers to serve food during the pandemic and that they had funding to assist. I felt that it was a way to not only keep people working, but send meals to the ones who need it the most.”
Artportunity Knocks spoke to several restaurants that were using their last reserves to feed essential workers for free, so Woods seized on the opportunity to partner with a local small restaurant and pay them to cook a fresh meal for her students as well. It was truly a win-win. The students were able to learn about a local restaurant, and the restaurant was able to stay open. “We saw the opportunity to expand this into a program that will not only help small restaurants, but give families the ability to try a ‘taste of Cobb’ or a ‘taste of Atlanta’ without leaving their homes! We plan on expanding this opportunity to other restaurants and would like to expand this across the state,” Woods said.
The future holds incredible promise for Artportunity Knocks. Moving into 2021, Woods plans to roll out a full and comprehensive series of courses that students can take in Georgia and globally. “We want to curate tailormade experiences that are unique to Artportunity Knocks,” Ty says. “We also plan on passing this organization on to the community at large, becoming not just a financial supporter, but an ambassador and ongoing advisor to the future leaders of this organization.”
Woods said she and Chris have built a legacy, in that the organization has already defeated so many odds — including defeating the onset of a pandemic. “That just means this organization is here to stay, and the community will not let it fail,” she concluded.
The Power of Community Wins Again
Two million dollars. That’s the fundraising goal Tyler Driver, the executive director of The Extension, has for 2021. Part of the residential recovery program’s new Capital Campaign, these dollars will go toward the work the nonprofit does with homeless people who suffer from addiction. This includes continuing the construction of an expansion of the organization’s Marietta campus (featuring 38 new beds) and supplying program participants with the emotional, medical, and financial support (including paying their first month’s rent upon graduating) needed to complete their residency.
The only way to attain what Driver calls “the single most ambitious [fundraising] undertaking in [The Extension’s] history,” however, is through the power of community — and if the events of the last year taught us anything, it’s the importance of staying connected and looking after one another. “Our work is critical and must endure even in this time of community stress,” Driver says. The Extension, he notes, functions to work toward solutions, rather than simply alleviate problems. This solution-oriented approach aligns perfectly with the goals and values of another Atlanta-based organization.
Enter AssuranceAmerica, the 22-year-old insurance company co-founded by Executive Chairman Guy Millner, Bud Stumbaugh, and CEO Joe Skruck. The company, which first partnered with The Extension in 2018, is “a big part of [the] solution,” Driver says. “They already know what I want the whole community to know: The Extension is not where homeless, addicted men and women end up. It’s where they start up.” Two years ago, AssuranceAmerica helped The Extension with a $50,000 donation. This year, the company wanted to do more.
Recently, it presented The Extension with a $100,000 check. “I’ve been blown away by the sheer amount of work The Extension has been able to do,” says Daniel Scruggs, senior VP and CFO of AssuranceAmerica. “We couldn’t be happier that our company has been able to give back in this manner.”
The donation goes toward funding the general operating and off-site housing costs. In addition, AssuranceAmerica has promised to match every dollar raised by The Extension, up to $1 million, for the nonprofit’s Capital Campaign. The company’s charitable actions don’t stop there. The organization also gives 5 percent of its annual pre-tax earnings to The Extension and two other organizations that help the homeless: Atlanta’s City of Refuge and New Beginnings of Tampa, Florida. “This is very important to us as individuals and as a company,” Skruck said. “We are extremely grateful and proud that we’re able to help in this way, and we hope to encourage those in the community who have the means to give as well. Let’s reach that $2 million mark together.”