Change happens: Rap Art closes its doors

After more than 40 years of close-up work with adolescents in Cleveland Heights and surrounding communities, Rap Art, a community fixture, has closed its doors.

Jewish Family Services started Rap Art as a drop-in center for adolescents in a former pool hall near Cleveland Heights High School around 1973. In 1977, Rap Art became a program of the Center for Families and Children, and Paula Atwood took the reins. In 1997, the agency moved to a new building on South Taylor Road, which became the home base for this touchstone program for struggling adolescents and their families.

The building at 1941 S. Taylor Road will now be called The Centers McMillan Early Learning Center, and services offered there will focus on expanded early childhood education. The Heights Family to Family Collaborative will remain at this site.

Rap Art was a unique community-based service that used the arts to promote behavioral health and positive social skills among adolescents. Over the years, hundreds of youths and their parents have benefitted from these programs, which were designed to support good decision-making and avoidance of risky behavior. It’s a loss for our community.

Pam Bradford directed Rap Art Center starting in 1992. “I’m an old-fashioned social worker. I believe deeply in community-based programs for youth, and in hands-on, interactive programming,” explained Bradford as she reflected on Rap Art’s programs, strategies and influence. Drawing a deep breath, she broke into a wide smile and her eyes twinkled as she highlighted programs she had helped design and implement. Her commitment to her work with young people and their families was obvious.

She remembered receiving calls from three different parents asking for help for their children whose school behavior had led to out-of-school suspension. “I couldn’t ignore that call for help,” recalled Bradford. The result was Pinpoint, a program to help suspended and expelled students keep up with schoolwork and tackle the behavior that landed them in trouble.

For the last 20 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has funded Pinpoint with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. The Citizens Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on the city’s use of its CDBG funds, and city council gave it high marks. “We are disappointed to see Rap Art close. I don’t know anyone who is doing anything like Pinpoint,” said Nancy McLaughlin, who administers CDBG funds for the city and has visited the program every year. She was impressed by how well the program was run and the impact it had. “They have helped so many kids get back on track. We really value what they did.”

Bradford is emphatic that the arts made Rap Art unique and effective. Over the years she has designed or implemented programs that used dance, drama, debate, music and the visual arts to empower teen parents or struggling high school students and to strengthen connections between parents and adolescent children.

While Rap Art and all the lives it touched in a positive way is a source of pride for Bradford, so is another legacy: the more than 40 creative staff who, during their years running exciting programs at Rap Art, honed the skills needed to really help children at risk. She named Tony Sias, the new executive director of Karamu House, as one example.

Personally, I am grateful to Pam Bradford for her unwavering respect for her clients and belief in young people and the arts. Ten years ago, when Cuyahoga County’s Department of Children and Family Services expanded its decentralized approach to child welfare, Bradford was willing to go to bat within her agency to become the sponsoring partner for Family to Family in the Heights. She was a wonderful collaborator when a committee of community volunteers that I chaired pushed for the new community resource. She took up the call. Her reputation and determination made it a reality.

Last year, Rap Art’s parent agency, the Center for Families and Children, merged with West Side Ecumenical Ministry and El Barrio. These three social service agencies, with 19 locations in the Cleveland area, are now known as The Centers. Their focus will be early childhood education and health and wellness for behavioral-health clients.

The change reflects some of the challenges human service agencies face as they seek to remain viable and sustainable in an era of limited funding and changing priorities. It will bring new opportunities to our community.

The Rap Art Center has been Bradford’s home base for more than 25 years. She will soon relocate to The Centers’ downtown headquarters.

Thank you, Pam Bradford and Rap Art. We will miss you. You made a difference.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 9, Issue 3, Posted 11:34 AM, 03.01.2016