Providing kids with a creative ‘Haven’

It’s 3:45 p.m. when a flood of kids come pouring into Portable 1 of Woodmere Elementary. They are as wound-up and giggly as anyone would expect from a group of fourth- and fifth-graders after school. The formerly quiet room resonates with the sounds of excited chatter and shuffling feet. Teacher Chris Harder and volunteer Sara Carmona welcome the dozen or so and round them up into a large circle. It is time for acting class and there is no time to waste.

“They’re full of energy and exited and willing to learn,” Harder says. “They’re not very shy.”

The kids will prove this time and time again over the next hour and a half.

This class, Creative Dramatics, is one of many opportunities offered through the Haven Project, a nonprofit organization that pairs local artists with children to create original theater. Haven works with organizations such as the Blazers Boys and Girls Club, the Friends of the Children and the SUN Schools program to offer classes and mentorships to children from low-income areas of Portland.

Creative Dramatics is offered in conjunction with the SUN program, which joins with local schools to offer after-school programs throughout the city. Haven Project managing director Cynthia Fuhrman says the philosophy of the organization is that “every child has something of value to offer, that is theirs alone, that no one can take away from them.”

“It is our role to help them discover it,” she says.

Creative Dramatics meets each Tuesday through May with the goal of instilling the skills and confidence to succeed in theater. Harder says the outcome is for the kids to learn to work together, to listen, and to be more in touch with their senses. “I want them to learn what being courageous is all about,” he said. “Taking a risk. Taking a bow.”

“They come into class very limited in what they feel they can do,” Carmona said. “My favorite part is watching them transform and learn.”

Both Carmona and Harder have backgrounds in theater. Carmona, 25, is focusing on teaching after graduating from Willamette University with a degree in theater arts. She began volunteering for the Haven Project this year. Harder, 30, has been acting for 15 years. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in dramatic arts and has been involved with Haven in various capacities for about five years.

Eleven-year-old Desiree Ford offers a brief yet to-the-point assessment of her teachers. “They’re really cool,” she said.

Harder and Carmona are patient, playful and full of energy. They take the lead in various group exercises, such as “Pass the Mask.” This is a game in which the kids must create a facial expression to pass to their neighbor. The neighbor must mimic that expression before creating a new one to pass along to the next person.

In between the half-dozen or so exercises, a controlled chaos reigns. Girls fall onto the floor giggling as rambunctious boys push each other in a corner. Harder and Carmona acknowledge the excitement but call periodic time outs to discuss respect and patience. The points are well taken, and the class rolls on.

All too soon, the students arrive at the last task of the class: improvisational work. Harder and Carmona explain the concepts of relationship and conflict, then ask the kids to create scenarios to be acted out. Several requests for “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationships elicit titters. After a few sample improvisations from the teachers, pairs of students are chosen to act out the scenes. Though generally nervous at first, they seem to warm up to the spotlight quickly. Their movements become easier, and they establish eye contact.

And with that, the class is over. The kids shuffle out almost as quickly as they came in. But 9-year-old Ruben Mena stays behind with a few others to work on one last improv with Harder.

Mena is a ball of energy. This Woodmere fourth-grader was the first one in class and is the last one out. He arrived 10 minutes early, chatting it up with Harder. During class, he was constantly moving, shuffling his feet, jogging in place and punctuating his words with emphatic arm gestures. Though this is only his second encounter with acting, he already seems poised to conquer the stage.

His first effort was last year’s third-grade musical, in which he played a war protester. He reflects on what his lines were for a moment and then lights up as he remembers: “One, two, three, four, we don’t like your dirty war.” “I was pretty good at it,” he smiles.

From the class, Mena says he has learned to pay attention to directions, listen to other people and be quiet. His favorite things about it are hanging out with his friends, “having fun and acting.” He hopes to continue in theater after the class is over. His dream roles are Peter Pan (“You get to fly.”), Pinocchio (“I would poke people with my nose.”) and Superman (“I’m sure I would crash into walls, so I would need a lot of practice.”).

The Haven Project offers several opportunities to children in elementary school through high school. Its one-on-one programs pairs kids up with professional writers to produce two-person plays. The kids then go on to perform the plays with professional actors. There are also opportunities in the visual and musical arts, and theater production. Haven’s Afield Program offers kids in community-based group homes or treatment facilities the chance to write plays that will be performed by professional actors.

Fuhrman says the programs build focus, responsibility and trust. There are kids who started taking classes with Haven when it began in 1995 who are still with the program as high school sophomores today. The payoff for some of them has been farther reaching.

“The biggest success for some of them is staying in school,” Fuhrman said.

Grant High School sophomore Maxine Simmonds, 15, has been participating in Haven activities since she was 8. She looks forward to the opportunity because it is an escape from the sometimes stressful atmosphere of school. Acting “brings out a different person in you,” she said.

“I think the benefits are teaching me to be myself, even though it’s about playing different characters,” she says. “It’s built up my self-esteem.”

Funds for the Haven Project come mostly from private organizations designed to support the arts. The Oregon Arts Commission, the Regional Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts all contribute. This year’s budget of $450,000 pays for Haven’s four full-time staff members, the 200 mentors and performers who come and go throughout the year, and the various production expenses.

Despite recent cuts to school arts programs, Fuhrman said that Haven is only a minor help in picking up the slack.

“Because we’re very targeted, we’d be doing it regardless of what school program is out there,” she said. “I think we fill the gap to a certain extent. But we’re only a little piece of that puzzle.”

Harder, for his part, seems happy to be a piece of the puzzle. He says he will continue with the organization for as long as he stays in Portland.

“As far as community programs go, I feel like the Haven Project is well rounded and fantastic,” he said. “Every time I work for the project I feel satisfaction. I did something that feels good.”

And that effect seems to rub off on Haven’s students. Woodmere fourth-grader Sierra Harrison, 10, who dreams of becoming a professional actor when she grows up, has nothing but good things to say about the program.

“It’s given me a life opportunity when I’m so young, and I like that,” she said.

For information on upcoming events, visit the Haven Project’s Web site at