Downtown Aurora Visual Arts program receives White House honors

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Photo: DAVA at the White House
First Lady Michelle Obama (left) presents DAVA participant Boris Cochajil and DAVA's executive director Susan Jenson with a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award at the White House.

The White House gave a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award to Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA) on Monday in a Washington D.C. ceremony.

From more than 350 nominated organizations, DAVA was selected to receive the award for its Job Training in the Arts program after earning nods as a finalist in 2010 and 2008.

DAVA provides teens with studio time to develop creative and communication skills and it is the first Colorado organization to receive the honor since 2011.

“Getting this national award is huge,” DAVA executive director Susan Jenson says. “It’s a way of shining a spotlight on young people and saying that the arts provide these natural bridges in terms of self-identity and cultural sensitivity.”

Each year, about 100 metro area middle school students participate in DAVA's free after-school program, which connects the teens with artists in addition to providing them with studio time.

Participant Boris Cochajil represented DAVA at the White House. The 13 year old from Aurora says he had little interest in art until he joined the program.

“I think DAVA is really important because it teaches you that you shouldn’t be canned up and hide all your emotions,” Cochajil says.

“Even if I continue with arts or not, it matters that I become a better person and learn from experiences.”

Photo: Artist Shane Evans works with DAVA's Job Training program
Guest artist Shane Evans works with participants of DAVA's Job Training program.

Students commit two afternoons a week to the program, working collaboratively and also developing their own work for gallery exhibitions.

“There are a lot of different career fields out there that are connected to the arts," Jenson says. "This is an avenue for kids to learn basic job skills. I think that kids having that background of creative problem solving and engaging actively in discussions is great preparation for whatever they choose to do as they move forward in their lives.”

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) presents the award annually.

At the ceremony, Michelle Obama said, "Through these programs, students are learning critical lessons in grit and creativity, teamwork and attention to detail that’s going to serve them well whether they go on in careers in the arts or whether they go into science or business or anything else."

"I want you to embrace these opportunities. Your education is critical," the First Lady told the room of young students representing their respective programs. "It’s the best investment that you’ll make."

The other 2014 awardees include Boston’s Project STEP, which provides music education to students facing economic and social hardship, and a program based in Santa Ana, Calif., called TeenSpace Circle of Mentoring, which aims to reduce high school dropout rates by connecting participants with mentors and tutors from a local library.

The 12 award recipients will each receive $10,000 and a year of communications and capacity-building support from the PCAH.

DAVA is currently working to wrap up a $1.7 million capital campaign to support renovations and technology upgrades at its facility near East 14th Avenue and Florence Street in Aurora.

“This award will help us in terms of building a vision for the future,” Jenson says.

The last Colorado organization to earn a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award was PlatteForum's ArtLab three years ago. Previously, the Colorado Historical Society's Old Stories New Voices Program received the honor in 2005.