‘It’s way beyond my wildest dreams,’ Van Go founder says of arts-based social service agency’s 25th anniversary
photo by: Mariah Seifert
When Lynne Green founded Van Go 25 years ago with a donated Checker limousine and a $2,000 grant from the Kansas Arts Commission, she couldn’t have imagined the arts-based social service agency would become the fixture it is in Lawrence today.
“It’s way beyond my wildest dreams what is happening and what these creative young women (co-directors Eliza Darmon and Kristen Malloy) are doing and where they’re taking it,” Green told the Journal-World this past week. “I’m so excited to see Van Go continue to thrive and grow.”
The agency celebrated its 25th anniversary near the end of 2022 with a reunion party that brought together young employees of years past. Van Go provided each of them with crucial preparation for a successful future through its variety of job preparation programs, which since its founding have been centered on art.
photo by: Mariah Seifert
Van Go has called East Lawrence home since 1999, when Green first rented its current space at 715 New Jersey St. Today, the nonprofit owns that building, and it’s been expanded and renovated over the years to reflect the work that goes on inside.
“We thought we’d died and gone to heaven in this big space, because prior to that we just had the van, the Van Go Mobile,” said Green, who served as Van Go’s director until 2018. “… At that time, we were serving 8- to 13-year-olds. It was before we had our job training program. So the program has really evolved over time.”
The nonprofit today offers job training to teens and young adults from age 14 to 24 through a variety of programs that take place throughout each year. That evolution, Malloy said, falls in line with Van Go’s ability to recognize exactly how it can best serve its target population.
“I think that Van Go, from its inception, has always done an amazing job of keeping a thumb on the pulse of what the youth in our community have needed,” Malloy said. “It was always important that if there was a need, we were going to try to fill that gap and be whatever the youth were needing at that time. And that’s what’s helped the course and the trajectory of the organization.”
Often, when folks in Lawrence see what Van Go does, it’s in the form of the public works of art employees there create, like the “Sustenance” mural unveiled in downtown Lawrence early last year or the custom-designed benches crafted each year for the agency’s flagship “Benchmark” program. Green described Benchmark as the “quintessential” Van Go experience; to date, it’s resulted in Van Go artists creating more than 400 benches that have gone on to be displayed around Lawrence and across the country.
But the nonprofit’s past and present leaders will tell anyone who asks that what they’re doing doesn’t just boil down to making art. At Van Go, art is a tool, Green said, and it goes hand-in-hand with its social service elements to help differentiate Van Go from other agencies and arts organizations.
“It’s a very effective tool, don’t misunderstand,” Green said. “Just look at what you see. But underneath, Van Go doesn’t hire kids because they’re artists. They hire kids because they need to be here.”
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
That goes for kids from marginalized populations, kids living in poverty and kids who are on the autism spectrum, Green said. Anything goes, she said — they all have a barrier to overcome, and they’ll get the opportunity to create something beautiful that will get them positive recognition from the public if they come to Van Go.
The young people who work at Van Go don’t have to have any art experience to work there, in fact. They’re hired instead based on whether they have any sort of barrier to attaining education or employment opportunities, Darmon said, and they’ll interact with multiple social workers on Van Go’s staff during their time there. She said as soon as they’re hired, Van Go works to wrap social services around employees that will help support them while they’re with Van Go and set them up for future opportunities after they’ve left the agency’s programs. They can even come back over the years if they need more help with things like finding housing, for example, any time after moving on from the agency.
And it works. Van Go surveyed folks who came to the 25-year reunion a few months ago, and Darmon said 100% of respondents said they felt better prepared to have a job after working at Van Go and 99% said their lives were made better by working at Van Go.
That may be the case because today, an artist at Van Go has access to much more than just a stable job training experience. They also get mental health services and academic support, and may be the recipients of food insecurity aid through the agency’s Go Healthy program, which in part includes summer lunches and nutrition education. The agency also has a clothing and personal hygiene closet curated specifically for teens and young adults, thanks to grant funding and a partnership with Arizona Trading Co.
“I think for us, one of the things that we really work hard to do is make sure our youth are having a voice in what we do here,” Malloy said. “What we are here for is them, and so we have a variety of different ways that they give us feedback — they have leadership opportunities — to be able to help inform our programmatic and agency decisions around different things. (The clothing closet) is one of them.”
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
But no matter how new some of those elements may be to Van Go’s program and service offerings, social work has been at the forefront since the start. The agency started with just one part-time student social worker, Green said, and now there are two full-time positions plus Malloy.
One routine that has continued nearly as long as Van Go has been around has been using the “Stressometer” at the beginning and end of their work day. The laminated mood indicator — on which people rate how they’re feeling on a scale of 1, or “Chill,” to 10, or “Out of Control” — is still the original poster Green began using back in 1999. But it’s always been in style at Van Go, and Darmon said it gives social workers important cues about how frequently they should be checking in with employees.
“This is a huge piece of how we start our day — we take everybody’s ’emotional temperature’ when they start the day,” Green said. “It’s hugely, hugely helpful, and really every work place should have one.”
That’s one piece of the process of working with Van Go employees, which leaders describe as very intentional. Often, Van Go social workers know exactly how every individual’s emotional scale differs from one to another, and Malloy said that’s because they can easily work one-on-one with every program participant.
The size of program cohorts is based on that principle of intentionality — and that means employing a larger number of folks would run counter to Van Go’s goals. Expanding program sizes is a pressure Green said has nevertheless been constant over the years, but giving in-depth service in the way they do means Van Go is not a “turnstile” nonprofit shuffling people in and out of its doors as quickly as possible.
“… We are very committed to depth of service rather than breadth of service here, because we know that’s what can be life-changing, when you’re able to give individualized attention to the 100 young people that we serve annually,” Green said. “That’s not a huge number, and it’s on purpose.”
Because Van Go is an agency that benefits from longstanding community support, Malloy said where the agency goes from here must be guided by the youth and young adults of Lawrence. The agency sought that guidance as part of its strategic planning process last year, and now Malloy said there are some guideposts that can help shape what Van Go does in the next few years.
On top of that, Darmon said, the agency’s current directors have an important charge — to keep up the work Green started 25 years ago, and to continue to evolve Van Go as the community needs.
“… I think the first piece of it is staying true to the mission of our organization and the in-depth, quality service delivery,” Malloy said. “I think that we have a long legacy that we want to continue to uphold in the work that we do and sustain into the next 25 years.”