The bright colors and swirly figures in the North Boulevard viaduct murals shout, “Children were here.” Children are here, living across the street at Hephzibah Children’s Association, and for the last three summers they’ve been brightening up the neighborhood by painting murals on the train embankment walls.

One of this year’s young artists shows off the current project. “There are flowers growing,” she points out, “and a hand held high to catch the stars.”

Painting the murals, it turns out, is just the most visible part of Colorful Days, a six-week summer arts program for the 26 kids in Hephzibah’s group home. On Thursday afternoons, artists give them a chance to experiment with gospel singing, harmonicas, face-painting, poetry, percussion instruments, and colorful clay.

“This is the way learning should be,” says Mary Anne Brown, Hephzibah’s executive director.

The children, who live at Hephzibah for varying periods of time “because they can’t live in a family situation, through no fault of their own,” she adds, “will remember this forever.”

“The art nurtures their soul; it’s upbeat, builds self-esteem and helps heal,” explains Stephanie Taylor, a Hephzibah staffer who coordinates Colorful Days and teaches the gospel class.

Local artists, some of whom have been with the program since its beginning five years ago, come in for two hours each week. Kids are free to move from activity to activity. The “open forum” allows them “to experience different arts, a gift they’ll take with them,” says Taylor.

One of the veteran teachers is Oak Park painter Jonathan Franklin, who shepherds the kids through the creation of the murals. It’s been a learning experience for him, too.

“The first year we painted the stairway and hallway inside. That was crazy. Then we did panels [now varnished and on display in the back yard]. The third year they asked me to paint the viaduct wall,” he recalls. “I’d never done that before, but I said, ‘OK.'”

That just-do-it approach is what Franklin communicates to his novice helpers. “They come in and say, ‘I can’t draw; I don’t know how.’ I say, ‘Can you draw a circle? Then you can do it. Put your hands in the paint? We can work with that,'” he says.

Colorful Days always has a theme. This year it’s “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Last year’s was “I believe I can fly.” The murals express the theme. Franklin has developed a process that balances giving the kids creative control while actually getting the murals up on the wall.

The first week he tries to get any interested volunteers”usually a small group that can range in age from 3 to 12″to discuss the theme and then draw something related to it. It’s not smooth sailing, he admits, since some are too small to understand and others can be shy at first. But he manages to coax some drawings out of them (this year it was traced hands, stars and a sun), and then combines these into a montage which he blows up and draws onto the wall. The kids, with Franklin’s help, color it in.

“They rotate in and out. They get hot and tired. It’s a daunting process, but they do it. They’re very good sports,” he says. “I never change what they do. It’s theirs.”

When the mural is done (as it should be by the time this appears in print), Franklin will connect it to the others, leaving the viaduct wall with one large work of art. And next summer, it will grow again.

Tomorrow, Colorful Days ends with a festival, when everyone’s invited to see what the kids have created and watch them perform.

The inside story

On one recent Thursday afternoon, it’s all motion, energy and organized chaos inside Hephzibah. Along with the artists, there are lots of staff members and volunteers to make sure each child has the attention he or she needs.

John Milan, who, like Franklin, is a five-year veteran with Colorful Days, patiently hands out harmonicas to children gathered around his table. He’s got an enthusiastic little helper who brings him water and helps label the instruments with other kids’ names.

Milan teaches harmonica at Guitar Fun in Oak Park and from his Forest Park home studio. He’s got a system to make it easy, he explains”numbers correspond to notes; inhale if the number’s circled, exhale if it’s not.

To demonstrate, the kids do a rousing rendition of their theme song, “This little light of mine.”

As Milan points to the numbers on the chart, he tells them, “Just have fun. Don’t get ahead of me.” And then, “Awesome,” when they’re done.

“Learning to play the harmonica teaches depth perception and trust,” he explains. “You can’t see the notes when you play.”

Through the windows in a room close by, kids first sing along and then dance to gospel music with Taylor. A boom box plays “I Need You To Survive.” The lyrics are written out but the children know the words, belting out the refrain: “I pray for you, you pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.”

Behind another door that masks a considerable amount of noise, percussionist Carl Spight has unpacked this week’s “music toys,” unleashing what he calls “a chaos of music fun.”

Although he eventually plans to corral the children into a percussion version of “This little light of mine,” he won’t interfere with the noisy bang and dance that starts each week.

“I don’t force anything,” he explains. “They come with no preconceptions, no like experiences. It’s rhythm and sound, and they have a great time.”

It’s a calmer group that gathers around Priscilla Bell, who took up face-painting after retiring in 1999 as personnel director at Oak Park and River Forest High School. “I originally expected to teach the children to face-paint, but most want me to do it. They love to have their faces painted,” she says.

The hardest part is to keep them from peeking before the job’s done.

Down a hall and through the kitchen, Rhonda Harris presides over what she calls “a rockin’ room.” Children and adults alike have their hands in rainbow colors of clay. Harris, a Hephzibah child care worker who considers this easy duty compared to what she does all day long, is a perpetual motion machine as she moves from project to project, helping turn clay into beads, hanging jewelry, and gold-embossed leaves.

“The goal is for every child and staff member to make something that expresses them. Then we’ll suspend them all from a chain,” she explains.

Later, Harris muses about the value of Colorful Days. “It’s non-judgmental, accepting and open to the kids’ needs instead of having them conform to other people’s ideas,” she says. “There’s no wrong things, no bad things. They do what they want. It helps the kids to see that they have worthwhile ideas, that they can create things for the rest of their lives.”

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