How did START, um, start?
It was set up in March 2007 by ART Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation, which is an organisation in London. START is based in Dubai but it’s a Middle Eastern charity. We’re aiming to reach the whole region. We’re still quite young but we’ve really grown in terms of volunteers and the people we’ve helped over the past two years, both locally and regionally.
Who benefits from START?
We target 11- to 14-year-olds, but we welcome anyone joining or asking about it – the more that know about us, the better. We run workshops all year round, and we work on lots of different projects. There are regular START Tuesdays for kids with Down syndrome and autism, we do workshops during the fair at Art Dubai and run summer schools. We used to have a workshop every Saturday with women and children from the City of Hope shelter. We’re hoping to find a new shelter that we can reach out to.
What do the children learn?
We provide them with practical art techniques. Practising artists from different fields volunteer to come in and work with the children. So maybe an architect comes in and teaches them about architecture, or the same with a designer or a photographer. The children are getting a proper art education – it’s not just colouring.
How much is a project like this needed in Dubai?
It’s definitely needed in Dubai. The children we work with are underprivileged and wouldn’t normally have access to this kind of experience. It’s important to teach them about art and creativity, and that there’s something out there for them. It’s so rewarding when the kids look at what they’ve produced and say, ‘Oh, wow’. Then the parents come in and see their children’s work and they say, ‘Oh my god, my kid has some talent!’
You work with government schools too, don’t you?
Yes, quite regularly. There’s no art education in government schools; they don’t think it’s a proper subject to teach. So we started going into schools and set up a workshop called ‘Art is in My Classroom’ where we bring in artists to work with the students.
What’s this we hear about you doing work in Lebanon and Jordan?
We went to Jordan over summer to do a pilot workshop with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. The response was great and we’ve hired a Jordan co-ordinator so we don’t have to fly back and forth. We’ve been to Lebanon, too, and the workshops worked really well, but the problem is finding a co-ordinator there. Hopefully we’ll find someone so that we can reach more children.
Do you need more volunteers?
We only have three full time staff – the rest are volunteers. So yes, we need more because we rely on them.
Do volunteers need to know a lot about art?
All of the team is trained in art and design, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take on people who don’t know anything about art. We’re looking for people who appreciate art and are interested in helping those less fortunate than themselves. We want people who are committed, because that’s how we’re going to grow.
What’s a typical day at START?
I don’t have a set day. The job changes every hour. I’m thinking of ideas for workshops and planning them, running them, and meeting artists and gallery directors to discuss projects. Sometimes I’m designing brochures and merchandising, because I studied graphic design. We’re working on our brand identity so that we can spread the word.
What do you get out of it?
It’s a two-way relationship: you benefit from the children and they benefit from you. I will never forget when I first started – I thought I had problems and then I go and meet these kids. You appreciate life a lot more, but I have fun at the same time. It’s rewarding to work with autistic and Down syndrome children, because you see them when they’re like, ‘I did this’, and how proud they are, and you feel like you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. I’ve learned a lot about art as well. One of the most beneficial things is meeting artists and designers – people you can learn from.
What are your hopes for START in the future?
In Dubai it’s hard to reach groups like refugees. I’d like to focus more on Jordan so that project progresses. Eventually I want us to grow into more regions, but right now I just want to keep the projects we have and help more children. Phone 04 368 1128 for more info.