This six-year-old Wilmington nonprofit is helping underprivileged youngsters choose a career
During her four years as an after-school photography instructor at Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, Theresa Emmett noticed a disappointing trend with her students.
“Rather than picturing themselves as wanting to grow up to be the dentist or the doctor, it was, ‘I want to be the dental assistant or the nurse’s aide,’” recalls Emmett. “Seeing these barriers was extremely frustrating because they were all young, intelligent women.”
What these kids needed, Emmett thought, was some inspiration. So, she decided to do something inspiring. With the help of Janae Dupree, a science teacher, Emmett organized an art exhibition for the students to showcase their skills.
“Our very first exhibit was actually very small,” says Emmett. “It was at Scrumptious (a juice bar in Wilmington’s Trolley Square). We probably only had 15 people come through. Our second exhibit (just a few months later) was at Union Park Honda (1704 Pennsylvania Ave.) and there we had about 80-100 guests. Since then we’ve grown to our largest exhibit at the University of Delaware, having close to 200 people.”
Inspired by the success of these art shows, Fouryouth Productions was born.
Located at 1900 Superfine Lane in the heart of Wilmington, Fouryouth is a non-profit organization focused on the development of underprivileged youth. Founded in 2013 by Emmett, Dupree, and Emmett’s husband, Raphael Dahan, a high-end retoucher who works on advertisements for big brands, Fouryouth grew from simply hosting art exhibits to having those exhibits generate money for a college fund. In the meantime, it also developed a four-subject curriculum.
“That was our way to start breaking down those barriers and inspire kids to [begin thinking about attending] college at a younger age,” says Emmett.
Today, Fouryouth Productions offers programs in science, photography, cooking and engineering to children in grades K-12. Throughout the year, Fouryouth works with close to 500 kids. Each program is taught by professionals or students in that major.
“How we teach our programming is that the kids are quizzed on vocab words in science and engineering, which we then reiterate in cooking and photography,” says Emmett. “Having that reiteration through a creative process actually has really helped them with their pre- and post-testing, where they’ve had a 33 percent increase in scores.”
Photography and Digital Art
The Art Fouryouth program teaches different aspects of photography and digital art. Students begin by learning camera fundamentals and are given insight into the various stages of professional production, such as design, art direction, post-production and printing. The Art program also functions as a talent scout. If there is a dedicated student with raw talent, Fouryouth will help that student land a professional internship.
Artwork produced by the students is exhibited in shows throughout the year. The shows also function as a way for students to work on interaction and self-advocacy skills.
“During art exhibits, kids sell their own artwork,” Emmett says. “They have to be able to speak about it intelligently, describe the process behind it, and when it is sold, 100 percent of the profits go into our college fund. The kids keep track of it; they know exactly what’s in the college fund. It’s an overall fund for all of the kids. We don’t do individual.”
Come senior year, students can fill out an application for scholarship funding, which then goes before a committee.
Fouryouth also offers Science4youth. Emmett, whose father is a chemist, grew up photographing science experiments. “Art and science to me seem to just naturally overlap, and science has always been a passion of mine,” she says.
The Science4youth program gives students the opportunity to explore advanced scientific fields through hands-on class experiments that teach biology, physics, chemistry, earth science, neuroscience and food science.
No Stove Required
The Cooking4youth culinary arts program focuses on low-cost, nutritious and easy-to-prepare recipes. A unique aspect of Cooking4youth is that the use of a stove or oven is not required, allowing for instruction to take place in a standard classroom setting. Students are given the opportunity to prepare more than 50 recipes that include cuisines from around the world. The process introduces them to new tastes and new cultures.
Nick Martin, who was with the University of Delaware Blue Hen Leadership Program at the time, was introduced to the founders of Fouryouth nearly five years ago. After learning about the program, he contacted Fouryouth about helping them develop an engineering program. Today, that program, Engineering4youth, allows kids to not only learn about building and problem-solving, it exposes them to the 40 engineering disciplines that exist.
“Normally, when people think about STEM or engineering, they’re like, ‘Oh it’s just building,’ but it’s really not,” says Emmett. “That’s where Nick has really helped open up my eyes that there really are so many different disciplines in engineering that don’t even focus on building itself.”
Adds Martin: “We rely heavily on everything [being] hands-on for science and engineering because it’s something that our target demographic does not see in school right now.”
Joe Biden Helps Out
One of Emmett’s fondest memories is getting her students’ art displayed by former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I had a dream of having the kids’ artwork up in The White House,” she says. “Biden goes to our church, St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, so one day after church I just bolted for him and said, ‘Vice President Biden, can you put my kids’ artwork in the White House?’”
A display in the White House didn’t happen, but Biden did arrange for the students’ artwork to be displayed at his Washington, D.C. residence. The students were also invited to attend a volunteer holiday party with Biden that included just 50 guests.
“The kids said they felt like they had stepped onto a movie set,” says Emmett.
Jairus Branch, who has been attending Fouryouth since he was in fifth grade, knows the organization has changed his life for the better.
“My experience at Fouryouth Productions has meant a lot to me,” says Branch, now in his junior year at Freire Charter School in Wilmington. “When I was in fifth grade, I had to make a lot of decisions about what I wanted to be, and I couldn’t choose. I came to Fouryouth and did a lot of things, such as engineering, photography, science, and all that. A few years after that, I started getting interested in mechanical engineering and after being with Fouryouth for seven years now, they’re helping me get into the University of Delaware.” Branch currently has a mechanical engineering internship at UD.
His favorite Fouryouth Productions memory? “First, actually meeting the people from Fouryouth and becoming a family. And second, meeting former Vice President Joe Biden, because I wouldn’t think of me meeting an actual vice president at that time.”
Family Portrait Project
Laura Semmelroth, Creative District consultant at the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, works with Fouryouth on projects in the city’s Creative District. Their most recent collaboration was the “Family Portrait Project.” Today, five murals created by the students during that project are displayed on Wilmington’s Catawba Street Alley.
“The goal was to photograph families as you define them,” says Semmelroth. “Your biological family, a family that you’ve adopted through being part of a team or group—so it was really a range of folks.
“I think the [subjects] really enjoyed it because here are these really professional young men and women who are using professional equipment to photograph them—pretty impressive. When you photograph someone, you spend that time with them and there’s a connection there that you’re able to make. I think that was nice for the kids to be able to experience ”
Bolstered by its success thus far, Fouryouth has big aspirations. First, Emmett wants it to become fully self-sustaining.
“We received grant funding basically so that we could afford the space and now we’ve been working very hard at making sure we’re not dependent upon grants,” she says.
“Our oldest students, who have sort of been with us for five, six, seven years now, we hire back to be event photographers with us,” says Martin. “That’s definitely helped and been a huge financial [benefit] and allowed the kids to gain a more professional exposure to photography.”
The organization hopes to find ways to offer space to the public as well as find new businesses to lease their artwork. The students from Fouryouth are also available for event photography.
And now, six years after Fouryouth’s beginning, its first group of students will soon be heading to college.
“I don’t know what I would do without them,” confesses Emmett. “It’s bittersweet. I’m so happy, of course, and excited that they’re going to college, but I’m going to miss them so much. I feel like every time we’re together, it’s just pure joy.”