By Jill Warren Lucas
Classes are done for the summer at Cary Academy, but rising senior Emma Astrike-Davis doesn’t have much time for leisure.
In fact, she’s been busy with an extra-curricular project that has taken up much of her spare time since the sixth grade. Her efforts to engage classmates and peers in activities to benefit others recently led to national recognition as one of 10 recipients of a 2013 Prudential Spirit of Community Award. The program honors high school and middle school students for outstanding achievements in community service.
“It was such a remarkable experience to be with all these people,” says the soft-spoken 17-year-old, who attended workshops in Washington, D.C., with national finalists before the honors were announced. “When she said, ‘Our next award winner is from Durham, N.C.,’ I thought to myself, ‘I wonder who else is here?’ I started shaking when they put me in front of the microphone. It really was very humbling.”
Astrike-Davis received a total of $6,000 in grant awards to support Art for Hospice, a 501(c)3 she established in 2008. It started as a one-day event when she earned the privilege of being “head of school for a day” at Montessori Community School in Durham. The then-12 year-old bucked tradition by not ordering extended recess and no homework. Instead, in tribute to her great-grandmother, she engaged all students in creating artwork to brighten the rooms of hospice patients.
Her parents provided two canvasses for each classroom to collaborate on creating art. The one-day plan stretched into a week as supportive teachers devised ways to integrate lessons with the project, which included presentations from community social workers. The finished pieces were delivered to Heartland Hospice in Durham.
Astrike-Davis was gratified by the empathetic support of her classmates. “For one boy it was particularly meaningful because his father was in hospice care and he never really was able to talk about it,” she says. “Being involved gave him an outlet.”
The program travelled with Astrike-Davis to Cary Academy and has been embraced by several other schools, as well as the Greensboro Children’s Museum and Colegio North Hills in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she was an exchange student last summer. She estimates that about 1,500 artworks have been provided to hospice, nursing home and rehab patients over the years.
“I’ve gone from being one of the main artists to the main coordinator, so I get to hand donate a lot of the paintings,” she says, adding that elderly residents appreciate visits from young people who remind them of their grandchildren. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do I have to pay for this?’ I tell them, no, it was made especially for you.”
The most moving response came from the family of a gentleman who treasured his painting, which depicted iconic baseballs and apple pie atop an American flag. “They said he held it in his arms for the last three days of his life,” she says. “I could hardly believe it. His family kept it because they saw how much it meant to him.”
Art for Hospice previously received a grant from the Cary Town Council and conducts fundraisers with a local restaurant that shares profits from special events. The $6,000 Prudential proceeds will enable her to expand the program and provide necessary art supplies. Her long term goal is to see chapters operating in every state.
A more immediately need, however, is to involve more youth in leadership of the organization as she prepares for the college admission process. Inspired by her parents, who have public service careers, she hopes to pursue a degree in public health and policy.
“I’ll need more help this year, and I want to create opportunities for other students to have leadership experience,” says Astrike-Davis, who credits the project for building her confidence and organizational skills. “It’s taught me a lot about being passionate about a cause and the impact you can have by just doing small things.”