It looked like a scene from opening night at an art gallery as 20 budding artists unveiled their masterpieces Friday evening in East Lawrence.
"I just wanted to pull the sheet off," 15-year-old Danielle Galloway said, after revealing her handpainted bench to the director of Raintree Montessori. "She loved it. I thought she was going to start crying."
Galloway was one of 20 apprentice artists who spent the past eight weeks in the Van Go Mobile Arts "Benchmark" program.
The program, now in its tenth year, pairs at-risk or high-needs teenagers with a local business, organization or community member who commissions the young artists to create a bench.
"Each bench is really magical and unique," Cathy Ledeker, art director, said during the unveiling ceremony Friday evening. "They're fabulous artists. They all have a little bit of their soul in their benches."
For many of the teens, the program is their first summer job. The artists spent 22 hours a week at the Van Go facility, earning minimum wage for their work. In the process, the kids learn job skills and gain self-esteem.
"It makes me feel good because I like painting, and I like doing something that people will appreciate," said Kiera Shorter, a 15-year-old artist from Lawrence High School.
Shorter created a bench for the Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority, which will be placed at an area assisted-living facility.
"I just like the fact that I made more friends," Shorter said. "It's nice to meet new people from different backgrounds who have different perspectives on things."
To date, Van Go has placed nearly 200 benches in public locations. But more importantly, those involved in the program said they've made a difference in just as many young lives.
"They feel comfortable here and welcome here," Ledeker said. "Even though they're different, they feel accepted here. That may be what they get out of it, that they take with them the longest."