Posted on Feb 03,2010
ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Seven years ago, Alice Merrill and Linda
Odell began “SOHO: A Space of Her Own,” a partnership between The
Art League of Alexandria and the City of Alexandria's Court Services
Their vision, commitment and collaborative fundraising efforts created
an alternative arts program that touches the lives of at-risk young
Linda Odell is the Director of Alternative Programs for Alexandria's
Court Services Unit and co-founded the program with Alice Merrill,
former Director of Development at The Art League.
|Photo by Nina Tisara
Living legends Alice Merrill and Linda
Odell with their students
The pair are the recipients of many awards, including the 2005
Leadership Fairfax Community Partnership Award, the 2004 United Way
Eureka Award and the 2009 “Making a Difference Award” from the
Commission on Women. SOHO was included as a chapter in the
book "Healing the Inner City Child," a treatise on at-risk
youth and high-school dropout prevention.
"We started SOHO in an effort to reduce juvenile crimes committed
by females,” said Odell, “Which appears to have worked because 96%
of the 108 girls we have served have remained free from court
involvement. Mentoring works!"
The art-based program serves pre-teen girls by providing yearlong
mentoring through engagement in creative art activities and meaningful
community service projects.
Each volunteer mentor makes a one-year commitment to the program, which
fosters long-term relationships and culminates in the renovation of each
girl’s bedroom, HGTV-style. SOHO utilizes evidence-based life skills
curricula and the National Mentoring Partnership’s model program
This year SOHO expanded from its original Old Town Alexandria
location to Hammond Middle School. The Visual Arts Center of Richmond
has also replicated SOHO.
“SOHO helped me a lot, to get back on track with school, and at
home,” said a participant. “Now I go to school every day. I can
honestly say that I am saying this from the bottom of my heart.
Alexandria may be small, but does a lot of big things to help ordinary
young girls improve their lives.”
According to a mentor, “It didn’t matter if they were great at what
they did, but it did matter that they tried their best. Developing
positive traits to turn out positive young women is part of what the
program is all about.”
A citywide survey of Alexandria teens, parents and community focus
groups concluded that at-risk girls would be most successful in avoiding
juvenile criminal activity and improving social skills and self-esteem,
through engagement in long-term mentoring involving art activities.
Consequently, a partnership between the local Court Service Unit and the
non-profit Art League was developed and a “Space Of Her Own” was
|Photo by Nina Tisara
Girls are matched with adult, volunteer female mentors, who work with
them in weekly art classes as part of the yearlong program. Homework
support, life skills, communication and anger-management classes are
infused into every program day.
The mentors are not professional artists. They and the girls learn
artistic concepts and techniques throughout the course. Mentor and youth
work together to create expressive and attractive artwork for the girl's
bedroom, which may include a "dream" chest, mirror,
personalized chairs, lamps and wall hangings.
SOHO is loosely based on popular HGTV programming because upon
completion of the program, girls and mentors work in teams to remodel
other girls' bedrooms, being sure to include ample lighting and study
Each girl is then required to “pay it forward” by completing
community service projects with her mentor. Artwork and a
before-and-after renovation videos are exhibited at a community
reception at the end of the year.
The promise of gorgeous new bedrooms is the program’s hook, resulting
in near-perfect attendance. Because of the program’s non-threatening
approach, mentors, administrators and seasonal volunteers are welcomed
into the girls' homes during renovations.
This often results in connecting families to appropriate city services.
The success of this program is not only the one-year commitment by
mentor and youth, but also the three-year follow-up of activities and
supportive services through the SOHO Sisterhood Club, which is available
to graduates throughout their middle school years.