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Art project brings students and RCMP together

Student art hangs on the walls at the Sunshine Coast Detachment. Credit: Kathleen Suddes

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Kathleen Suddes, the office manager of the Sunshine Coast Detachment, had always wanted to decorate the detachment's lobby with student art.

When Cst. Kevin Shepherd took over the role of youth intervention officer, she saw her chance. Suddes, who says she's a fan of teenagers, wanted to showcase the art of the local high school students, which has a sophistication and skill you don't get with the drawings of younger kids.

"When Kevin came on board, I started to apply pressure to him in the summer," says Suddes. "He thought the idea had merit so he got out there and talked to some teachers. When we received our first batch of art in the end of Sept. 2013, it was mind-blowing — it was so good."

Changing perspectives

Beyond just the skill level of the art, the program, which was dubbed Cop Shop by the students, also offered the youth a positive experience and a new perspective on Shepherd's role in their community.

"I started going to the art classes to watch what they were doing and spend time with them," says Shepherd. "It was amazing stuff they were doing. It's just a good chance to talk with students that the police would normally never reach."

When Enid Kelly, the art teacher at Chatelech High School, was first pitched the idea to have student art displayed at the RCMP detachment, she was unsure how it would be received by her classes.

"I didn't think too many of my students would want to participate because a few have had less than positive experiences with the law," says Kelly. "But after the first few were getting feedback from the community and the RCMP, they changed their minds."

The intention had originally only been to give the students the opportunity to showcase their talent outside of the school, where their art usually hangs in the lobby, and to spruce up the detachment's walls. But when they were approached by members of the community interested in purchasing some of the pieces, Suddes says it added another layer to the project.

"There was one boy who had a charming little painting and when Kevin brought him a bright, crisp $50 bill, he says he hadn't seen this boy smile before, but he didn't stop smiling for two weeks," says Suddes. "You never know the choices you can plant in kids' brains."

Win-win project

The first year, they facilitated the sale of $1,300 worth of paintings. And while the quality of what they were receiving at first was very high, it has only improved as the project has gone on.

"They're just thrilled," says Kelly. "They take great pride in their work and I think this has helped foster better will with the police."

Kelly adds that the students set very high standards for themselves and are often overly critical of their own work. Having such positive community feedback through these exhibitions helps build their self-esteem and boosts their confidence.

Both Suddes and Kelly credit Shepherd's enthusiasm and interest in the students as a factor in the program's success. She's seen that goodwill towards the RCMP steadily increasing in her students from Shepherd just being present in the art room and engaging with the students on their work.

"In my job, I'm in the schools frequently," says Shepherd. "And when I'm there, it's no longer, 'Why are the police here? What's going on?' It's 'Oh, they're just here because they care, there are some more adults that want to make sure we're safe and successful.' "

From Suddes' perspective, the Cop Shop is a program that addresses community outreach for the RCMP in a unique and mutually beneficial way — she hopes it's an idea that not only continues at the Sunshine Coast Detachment, but also that other detachments might adopt similar initiatives.

"I think this not only is an opportunity to humanize the police, but it also shows this group of kids that they're not forgotten, that we respect and value them," says Suddes. "It's a way of saying, 'We think you guys are really special and we're going to show the world.' "

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 2, 2015).

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