Walk a mile exhibit tells the story of EmberHope residents

At left, art instructor Micala Gingrich-Gaylord, known as “Ms. GG” by the young artists at EmberHope Youthville, sets up paint supplies that will be used in the Walk a Mile art project. Above, a young artist draws members of her family on a shoe as her image stands separate and yells out for help.

This story is part of a larger package looking at the impact and work of EmberHope. The “Walk a Mile” art exhibit is open at Carriage Factory Gallery through July 11. A second Walk a Mile exhibit is scheduled for June 28-July 21 at Kauffman Museum and will feature Micala Gingrich-Gaylord at the event’s opening reception on June 28, 4-6 p.m.

By Ken Knepper

If you met the girls behind EmberHope Youthville’s “Walk a Mile” art exhibit, at the surface you would see exactly what you might expect in teenage girls—they are engaging, bubbly and lighthearted that occasionally shines through as ditzy. However, beneath those adolescent facades lies a lifetime of emotional and physical pain.

Some of those heart-wrenching struggles are captured in the stories that accompany the centerpieces of their projects. “I put the wall up to protect myself…I just don’t think I’m ready to let people in right now.” Another reads, “I pretended everything was perfectly fine. Bruises fade. But it was a living hell.”

Walk a Mile is the brainchild of Micala Gingrich-Gaylord, an artist who worked with two groups, ranging in ages from 11-17, each week at the EmberHope campus.

The project has residents of the facility create shoes that tell the story of their lives and what they have dealt with. The project began in 2008.

In those first few shoes that were finished, I knew something really important happened for the kids, and I knew something really important was about to happen for whoever saw it,” she said. “Because there was nothing about it that left questions about that kid. It was very honest…very open. There was no longer a question of, ‘Are they a bad kid,’ because it was obvious they weren’t bad kids. This is not a thing about children being bad. Being in the system is about somebody failed them. Somebody didn’t do something right. And giving them an opportunity to express that has been a joy.”

Clients paint their shoes, and once the shoes are painted and decorated in a myriad of finishes, Gingrich-Gaylord asks each artist to write down her story behind the shoe’s theme.

If we didn’t include the kids’ words along with the shoes, I don’t know that the shoes would always be as impactful,” she said. “I think that narrative that the kids provide is really, really important. You see where their fingerprints are. You see where their unsteady hand was or their misspellings were and then the story helps you to fill in those gaps and provides the bridge and [a viewer] can walk across it with them. That narrative helps people connect to that story and then hopefully take action. Hopefully from the narratives, [viewers] will feel compelled to donate their time or their money or their resources and help these kids. Because they are literally the most vulnerable in our communities, and it’s 100-percent not their faults.”

In the beginning, Gingrich-Gaylord worked in Youthville’s kitchen. The Walk a Mile project started in Gingrich-Gaylord’s fourth year at Youthville, around 2008.

I worked there for about a year and started bothering people about a summer drawing program and found there was space in the expressive arts center. They call it ‘Ward,’ but I’ll always call it the Expressive Arts Center.”

The drawing program and work with the residents paid off, so they started looking for grants.

They saw some real good results over the summer, so they wrote a bunch of grants,” Gingrich-Gaylord said. “Then, I proceeded to run the center over the next 7-1/2 years. We had arts programming every day of the year—365 days. We had music theater, recreation and a place where we were making all sorts of stuff, and it was phenomenal.”

National statistics show that one in every four women or girls will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes and that’s based only on what is reported.

When Gingrich-Gaylord hears the girls’ stories, however, she can relate better than most.

When I was five I was sexually assaulted, and the man went away to prison for 15 years,” she said. “Both of my parents were addicts, so I experienced similar themes. What was different for me was that my parents were still able to retain a home. I had grandparents who lived around me, and I had a strong community that helped me be resilient. I still went through a lot of turmoil. But I had people around me who believed in me. And one of the things that helped me was I had an art teacher that really set me up to learn to express all of those things through using art, and I ended up going to school to get a degree in it.”

When she relates to the girls, she said she tries to keep her story simple.

But I want them to know there’s a way out of this kind of thing,” she said. “This is a very hard part of your life and you’re experiencing sadness and things are difficult, but there are ways out.”

Although Gingrich-Gaylord doesn’t exactly recall the poem from which she borrowed her project’s title, a 1970 song by Joe South that was later recorded by Elvis Presley titled “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” captures some of the message she hopes the girls’ art can convey.

I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind. Walk a mile in my shoes, just walk a mile in my shoes. Before you criticize and accuse, then walk a mile in my shoes.”

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