I met Jan Michener, the founder and director of the non-profit AHHAH, last year at one of the 100 Women Who Care meetings. There are some people who are gifted speakers, who present their topic to be aired getting their point across in an instant while also being animated and interesting. Jan is one of them. Not only does she convey her knowledge when talking about the organization she formed, but she also imparts and projects her passion for it onto her listener. These are valuable qualities indeed and when combined with her mission, they make a powerful combination. Her presentation on her organization moved the entire room and made us realize the importance of her organization and why she’s devoted so much of her heart and time to it.
AHHAH stands for Arts Holding Hands and Hearts but it has another meaning, one that moved Jan to entitle her organization after that meaning and utilize her talents. Jan’s background, first as an actress for twenty years in New York City and then as a teaching artist in Philadelphia, helped shape her thought process and develop her first hand appreciation for the positive effects that the arts have on children and education. She got her Masters in Education and dedicated her thesis to answering the question , “Does an arts infused curriculum enhance the academic success of students labeled at-risk?”. Not surprisingly she knew what her research would show. When teaching in inner city Philadelphia, funding for the arts was cut. Here was her AH HAH moment… She said, “If the school system doesn’t believe that children in poverty deserve an arts education and are just going to funnel them into the prison system, then we need to bring the arts to youth in detention and prison. Neither of the organizations I worked for worked in the juvenile justice system, so I said I would open my own organization,” and open it she did.
Responding to that AH HAH moment, which came to her through her everyday journaling exercises, she asked around to see if someone could get her into the prison system legally and found where she could begin. The Chester County Youth Center that houses a shelter for homeless and abused girls and the detention center for both boys and girls became her first target. She began a three month yoga trial there, before yoga was touted for the benefits that it has today, and then a six week creative writing program. Overwhelmingly, all of the girls in the shelter were from Coatesville. The heartfelt responses from these girls in her writing program incited her to make Coatesville her home base to see if they could stop the systematic flow of youth there into the juvenile justice system. How could one not be affected and moved by some of the responses her creative program elicited? One girl wrote, “I am the daughter of a teenage mother, who was the daughter of a teenage mother, who was the daughter of a teenage mother, with no father in sight.” Another wrote about being raped at 12 by her uncle but forgave him so she wouldn’t be the one “imprisoned”.
Below, I share with you Jan’s words:
“Coatesville is a city of generational poverty, generational incarceration, generational teenage mothers. Our first grant was for an afterschool yoga and playwriting program at Scott Middle School. While working at Scott, I was invited to visit one of the elementary schools because children in kindergarten were being suspended. It was an AHHAH moment, that I realized by middle school, even by elementary school, it was too late. If we wanted to stop the systemic “cradle to prison” pipeline, we needed to reach children and their caregivers 0-5.
We started a Family Story Time Yoga for children 2-5 and their caregivers at Coatesville Library. One of the participant’s mothers works for Early Start and asked if we would bring our program to Head Start. AHHAH now brings Story Time Yoga and a mindfulness program to 400 children in Head Start in Chester County. We have a Senior Ambassador Program, where seniors “adopt” a Head Start and read to the classes monthly. We purchase new books twice a year to give each child for their home library. Children in an impoverished household are exposed to 30 million words less by the time they are 5 than a child in a middle class household and many children are arriving to kindergarten two years behind. That statistic was the inspiration behind the P.U.L.L. (Pop Up Lending Library) Campaign. We knew we needed to get books in the hands of every child in Coatesville. 2015 was Coatesville’s Centennial. My goal was to get 100 pop up lending libraries wherever little children gathered, barbershops, laundry mats, churches, WIC office, parks. People said it couldn’t be done. We now have over 100 PULL stations both indoor and outdoor wooden structures throughout Chester County. We have collected and distributed over 58,000 books. ”
This is powerful stuff, indeed, and her words, spoken in person, motivated me to ask her to be our beneficiary for our upcoming Spring Barn Sale. Graciously she agreed and we cannot wait for you to hear her yourself at our Spring Preview Party Brunch on Wednesday, April 24th at 11:30 pm in our barn. There are still some tickets left and they can be purchased here. If you cannot make the Preview, that is okay for you can still benefit AHHAH by coming to visit the sale April 26th, 27th or 28th, where a portion of each and every purchase will be donated to AHHAH. At either of the events, you can also add to AHHAH’s P.U.L.L. Library by dropping off any new or gently used children’s books. We will have collection spots set up at the barn so please bring a book donation to the barn sale with you! To learn more, about AHHAH’s P.U.L.L. Program, click here.
Spring Barn Sale Hours are:
Friday, April 27th: 10am to 5pm
Saturday, April 28th: 9am to 5pm
Sunday, April 29th: 10am to 4pm
I leave you with words that moved me while digesting all of the information on the AHHAH website.
“I liked that I got to be open, relieve my stress and forgive myself for my past and move through this road block. I honestly feel like you should do more of these workshops so kids that are really down can somewhat stand back up.”
– Detention Participant
These words caused me to pause both in my reading through their website and then in the reevaluation of the many AHHAH moments in my life. As Jan has it on her website…
Reawakening to the AH HAH… moments in life…
I think we all need to do this a little bit more and help others to see and experience these moments as well. Hope to see you all soon!