Although we met Birgit Walker from the Children’s Prison Arts Project in 2015, we are starting our year off with her and her non-profit because not only is she amazing, but the initiative of Children’s Prison Arts Project is too. Birgit has a nickname, which is Gypsy, and it describes her and her surroundings perfectly. From the two extra large Great Danes lazing around to the colorful art on the walls of her garage turned into an office from her ‘kids’. She is filled with life, love, good energy, healing, caring and she practices kindness.
Birgit Walker was born in Germany during World War II, and she and her family got out of Berlin on the last train before the bombings began. She attended a small country school, and her father was killed when she was five, and her mother suffered horrible atrocities and sewed clothes in exchange for food. Birgit had read about an art school, and her dream was to one day go and become an artist.
At 23 years old, Birgit left home and went to art school and joined a theater group called The Living Theater that was a progressive group in both art form and content. She traveled all through Europe with the theater group for ten years, performing at a time when there was an awakening in society. The performances were often considered scandalous because they poked at the government and socialism.
In 1972, Birgit obtained a working visa to come to America and got her green card in 1974. She settled in Boston and went back to school for her Masters in Education at Antioch University, where she worked as the only white person in all African American theater company called the New African Company Theater. In the 80’s, she left Boston and moved to New York City, where she lived for ten years.
While in NYC, Birgit started an after-school program for kids in Washington Square Park. It was open to anyone who wanted to join, and it was free. This was her way of keeping kids out of trouble that lived in the projects. She would do theater and arts and crafts and educate the children on a life that was outside their perimeter. Birgit moved to Houston in the 1990’s, where she worked with MECCA, doing multicultural educational counseling of the arts and eventually became the director.
But, while Birgit was there, she saw a sign for a juvenile detention center and decided to go and visit and was very moved by what she saw with these kids and realized that this is where she wanted to work, and that was when Birgit started Children’s Prison Arts Project.
Children’s Prison Arts Project
Children’s Prison Art Project has been in existence under the watchful eye of Birgit Walker for 21 years now and operates in two different facilities for juveniles. They work in the Juvenile Detention Center and the Burnett Bail Detention Center. She teaches educational theater, visual arts, and photography to kids that are between the ages of 10 – 17.
The kids that are involved with the Children’s Prison Arts Project are in juvenile detention for selling drugs or being caught with drugs. They are involved in gangs and are truant from school. They are in the drug unit, the psych unit, and the general population. Most of them can’t read or write, and 75% of them come from dysfunctional families. Some of them were born with addictions. Many of them have parents that are already in prison, and many of them will end up in jail themselves.
Children’s Prison Arts Project takes kids that have been on the streets and will one day be back on the streets and gives them self-esteem and self-confidence to stay off the streets when they are released from Juvenile detention. The program is weekly, and it is 2 hours a night, with one hour devoted to art and the second hour dedicated to theater. Every Sunday a show is put on, and the kids respond well to the discipline of the class time as well as the discipline of learning that they have talent at something they didn’t know they had.
The artwork that the kids do is exhibited at various venues throughout the city of Houston during the year, which is underwritten by the Houston Arts Alliance, and the art focuses on a word or words that are positive and uplifting. The plays that the kids put on are all written by them, and the costumes are designed by them as well. They all focus on themes of positive change and inspiration for the future.
Children’s Prison Arts Project has seen over 25,000 juveniles go through its program and yearly serves around 880 incarcerated youths. Birgit Walker’s goal of helping these kids make choices that will help lead them to a better tomorrow is obvious when you see their art and their theater productions.
Children’s Prison Arts Project practices kindness by helping our incarcerated youth and helping to teach them through the arts that they can express their thoughts and visions in a constructive way.