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Tracy Frank, Published February 18 2014

Her Voice: College student uses art to connect with homeless children

Her Voice is a weekly article about women in or from our area and how they make an impact on the world around them. If you know someone SheSays should feature in HerVoice, email Tracy Frank at tfrank@forumcomm.com.

MOORHEAD – What started out as a class assignment has become so much more for Marissa Van Vleet.

The 22-year-old senior art education major at Minnesota State University Moorhead started volunteering at Churches United for the Homeless in September as part of an upper-level education class. The purpose was to participate in an educational setting that was not a school.

People don’t realize how many homeless children there are, she said.

“I had never really thought about it before,” she said.

Though her class is over, she continues to volunteer at the shelter. Van Vleet, who grew up in Bismarck and now lives in Fargo, started a Saturday morning art club for kids at the shelter.

“I think that art is a really important tool that we should be using in situations like this with kids who are at risk and with kids who have had tough backgrounds,” Van Vleet said.

They spend a couple of hours working on a variety of projects from light graffiti to painting.

“Art provides a means for them to learn to communicate visually,” she said. “It helps them see that we’re not so different after all.”

Van Vleet says she has always liked art. She gets lost in her creations and says it’s almost like a meditation when she’s working on something.

“I believe art has value and I believe art can tell a story,” she said. “It’s an amazing way to say things in a different way. It can be a poignant way to get across messages and concepts and to address problems in the world.”

As part of her class project, Van Vleet used time-lapsed video footage of art she created and destroyed throughout a video she made about education and child homelessness.

“People will ask, ‘What’s it like working with homeless kids,’ ” she said in the video. “Well, it’s like working with kids.”

Van Vleet researched policies to give homeless kids the same opportunities as other children.

She found an 1891 newspaper article from the Minneapolis Tribune that told about two young girls who became wards of the state and were barred from public school because they no longer had guardians living in the school district.

“While researching homelessness in the school-aged population, the lack of information was astounding,” she said in the video. “The invisibility of homeless families and children needs to fade away.”

She talks about government programs to help homeless children and families and the importance of keeping those kids in school.

“School provides a backbone of consistency in a very tumultuous life,” she said in the video. “No matter what, a child has the right to be in a classroom.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526