Only in Lawrence 2013The Journal-World asked Lawrenceians to tell us about the unsung heroes in the community, resulting in the annual Only in Lawrence feature.
When Lynne Green started what eventually became the Van Go program, she had no facility, no participants and owned no vehicle. She had only a borrowed van and an idea.
This was in the mid-1990s, as Green was approaching a milestone birthday and she was coming to realize she had hit a crossroads in her career. “I was trying to figure out exactly what direction I was going to take,” she said.
Her idea was to use art as a means for helping young people gain work skills, confidence and a foothold in the economy. To date, the Van Go program has helped several hundred young people find art and paid work, and the bright, many-colored fruits of their efforts can be seen around the city.
Before becoming director of Van Go, Green worked with and taught special populations, including inmates at a juvenile detention center. The work was satisfying for her, but she was ready to do something new. Something new not just to her, but new to the community, too.
Green had studied theater at Kansas University. But, as she tells it, the 1960s came, and “I developed a social consciousness,” which motivated her to go into social work.
It took many years to resolve the two passions into Van Go.
Green began “looking around at what didn’t exist,” with an aim to help at-risk youth in the community, she said.
The organization that came out of her search is founded on the premise that, as Green says, “Art has a lot of power to change lives.” It’s an idea that today Green calls “Pollyana-ish” for its idealism, but it has served as the driver for an organization that has helped many over the years.
In addition to helping young people create art, Van Go provides part-time jobs to those between 14 and 21 who, because of their family histories or socioeconomic backgrounds, are at risk for teen pregnancy, truancy, delinquency, depression, emotional problems and drug and alcohol abuse. The jobs are paid, and sometimes Van Go employees are the only working members of their households.
The “van” in Van Go originally was an idea to bring arts to young people. This was when the organization was conceived as an art outreach program and named “Van Go Mobile Arts.” But it quickly became apparent that bringing art supplies to schools and neighborhoods wasn’t practical. Now Van Go’s brightly painted vans are used to shuttle participants, many of whom don’t own transportation, to and from work.
Along with getting paid to do something creative, Van Go’s young employees receive skills training, academic support, lessons on healthy living and other services aimed to help them succeed in the labor market and improve their lives overall.
Van Go has been successful by many measures, including graduate rates and later employment by its participants. Surveys show that 77 percent of former participants say their experience at Van Go prepared them for finding a job afterward, according to the organization’s website.
But the organization’s success was not guaranteed or even expected. A generation ago there was often “disconnect” between the arts and social consciousness, Green said.
Melding the two together seems like a natural choice for Green, given her background. Green’s mother was a social worker and her father a psychoanalyst; they both had a mind on helping others through their career.
Today she relegates herself to being a “closet artist,” keeping a sketchbook and a visual journal that she won’t show to a soul. But the results of Van Go’s efforts to help others find art are all over Lawrence.
That is the work that has come to define Green for the last decade and a half. “I hate to say Van Go is my life, but Van Go really is my life,” she said. “This is my total focus.”