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Meet Artia Thomas of Create in the Lab

Today we’d like to introduce you to Artia Thomas.

Artia, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I’m a native of View Park in South Los Angeles. Growing up in this area allowed me a diversity of social experiences, education, and socioeconomic systems. Spending time with a village of family, church members and community had an impact on who I believed myself to be.

Being able to attend my neighborhood school, Windsor Hills Elementary School, and having teachers like Ms. Grant and Ms. Bryant, assisted me in identifying my areas of strength and weakness, the latter in areas where I lacked confidence. Their words were impactful and shaped the attitude I had about learning and the depths I understood about Black culture. By 5th grade, culmination, I loved both!

Essentially this village illuminated who I was and could become. As I developed self-awareness, I was thankful that my influences identified intelligence, ingenuity and integrity as my core values. It became the foundation I frequently visited throughout development and it cemented a standard of expectation.

Summertime supervision was always a challenge for my parents. My parents dedicated tireless hours to the future of their children as full-time employees, while simultaneously pursuing higher education. A monotonous marathon with literally no days off. They conquered the challenge like Usian Bolt would if he ran the Self-Transcendence Marathon; unequivocally prepared, unyielding and confident in the win.

As middle-class homeowners, summer camp was not in their budget. My siblings and I spent many of our childhood breaks with my grandmother at work, she was a custodian. We learned the importance of cleanliness, work ethic and respect of person—and to not sit on public toilet seats. It seemed as though my grandmother held all the answers to life’s obstacles, such beautiful pearls of wisdom slipped from her mouth.

My parents were fortunate, they had a village that provided the level of safety and security they required for their children, with the extended hours of care they needed to bring home the bacon. The icing on the cake was that my sisters and I spent time with the two people we cherished the most, our grandparents. They spent time imparting life lessons throughout the day.

My grandmother taught us about financial freedom (she is a proud woman from Monroe, Louisiana who used the skills she had and more than tripled what she earned); and my grandfather ( a family man from Little Rock, Arkansas) after a long day work as a welder, still embodied the characteristics of patience and kind-heartedness, stressing the notion that kindness carries you further than force. There were so many conflict resolution lessons to be had, and I still hear his voice whispering “never trade ignorance with ignorance”.

We spent hours playing with our cousins and neighbors, had lots of exercise and good food, and stayed outside until the streetlights sent their silent alarm to come in for baths and dinner. We usually ended July with a road trip to Chicago to visit family or another city where family resided and soaked in our last bit of freedom.

Despite our fun, our summers weren’t the summers I heard about from my schoolmates who went to summer camp and returned with a swimmer’s tan, or traveled the world and vacationed internationally, or even what I read about in the Baby-Sitters Club series; but we were taken care of and had tons of fun! We were happy non-summer campers.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
One of the consistent challenges we face is funding. This program is for the community and we need our community to assist us in meeting the growing needs of the youth who reside here. We want to ensure our program remains intimate, and not a financial obstacle for the families. Annually, we hold a raffle and fundraising kickball game to raise funds for scholarships. We partner with small businesses and artists who donate a service or product to raise scholarships.

Last year we gave out 20 scholarships which means that more than half of our campers received aid. This doesn’t leave much room for programming, and we are still developing transportation funding. We want to introduce financial literacy, safety awareness and efficient mentoring programs that meet the community’s identified goals. We aren’t a summer warehouse for youth, but an extended branch of an ever-developing and flourishing tree. We’re trying to teach how to plant, water, prune and reap so that all seeds are growing up, increasing and yielding a hundred times over. This is purposeful. We need our community partners to continue to We grow in numbers but would love to expand our experiences and meet the growing needs of the community.

We’d love to hear more about your organization.
Time has taught me that summertime is still a continuous struggle for families, as well as for youth, especially during the delicate formative years when identity is being developed. My grandparents and other family members provided my parents with what all parents need, a village. Years later, with the change in demographics and economic trends, family structures are changing. Grandparents are retiring earlier and traveling, and economic changes impact what used to be affordable for families.

For a parent, especially working parents, or a single-parent household, a child will have influences outside of the home. We try our best to be intentional about the interactions children have and who speaks into them, however, most parents are struggling to maintain the inclusivity with the demand of everyday life. In 2019, the village has stretched past the immediate family, to friends, neighbors, community groups and childcare options. This creates a need for a space that mirrors a village. One with the level of safety a watchful mother provides, the gentle redirection a grandmother provides, and the fun and games that come along with playing with your cousins and neighborhood friends.

In building the framework for Create in the Lab Summer Camp, we took this concept and merged it with the needs of families. In polling parents, teachers, medical and mental health clinicians, we discovered that children were suffering from a lack of social skills, childhood obesity and challenges with retaining and relaying information. Parents desired a safe, affordable, engaging experience, that has a kind of staff, and integrates academics and fun. We generated a blueprint using a holistic approach, ensuring the balance of fun and rigor. We integrated the gems in our community and utilized the local library to develop a love of reading, as well as engage in STEM activities.

As a former teacher, I recognize the sense of empowerment children feel when they practice good decision making, so the children assist in developing and designing facets of camp like their “Fun Friday Field Trips”. Their confidence in self soars like a rocket when their decision making pays off and they are saluted for their contributions. We pulled from our childhood games and use “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to navigate conflict resolution which works wonders when the children create their entrepreneurship project that requires they collaborate in small groups, to develop a business blueprint of their own—crayons and markers required.

The children learn to cheer each on during our multiplication and spelling bee’s and communicate their feelings when the moment does not go in their favor. There are arts and crafts, fruit-eating contests and tons of water play. We have Dodger and Sparks family nights so our parents are able to meet and continue the relationships their child made at camp. They learn from each other during culture week and develop a respect of differences to build skills for tolerance. It is important that we develop skills of success that will grow with them. As we practice etiquette skills, redirect manners and remind each other of our skills, seeds of wisdom are buried through reminders that “Life will take you glorious places, be prepared.”

These are the same lessons that nursed me through my own personal and career development. I’ve held different titles, but my career is built on bridging gaps and Create in the Lab is no different.

I’ve been teaching since I was in middle school, starting out volunteering in Sunday School at my church. I eventually became an educator, like my parents and built relationships with my students and their families. One student was met with several environmental challenges that led me to research the prevalence in mental health for Black families. This journey led me to marriage and family therapy where I learned how to merge academia with the building of social and emotional wellness skills.

I transitioned to community mental health as a Mental Health Therapist working with youth ages 5-18 and their families. In 2014, while looking for yet another summer camp for my then seven-year-old, I realized that I wanted more than my community could offer me. I found value in the area where I was raised and decided that I wanted to allow her, and other students, that same experience. So I built it.

Six years later we are still in business, studying the best approach to ensuring summer camp is affordable and comprehensive in it’s foundation. I want the children to leave camp with the same takeaway I did at my fifth-grade graduation, as I posed for photos with my white lace sleeves and kitchen press. I can do anything I put my mind to, and I have the ability to and am capable of excelling. The expectation of work ethic, preparation and execution greet the staff in the morning and affirmations go home with each child daily. We stand on the importance of illuminating ability, valuing childhood freedom and ensuring that all facets of the program honor the innate ingenuity all children are born with.

My passion for teaching and community-led me to assist in building and studying various youth programs in major cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Quito, Ecuador. Places where culture drives expectations and beliefs, which determined my curriculum and areas of emphasis. I ultimately desire to bring in STEM programs, financial literacy, mentoring and technology integration, being careful not to compromise the fundamentals of the program.

Create in the Lab is an organization devoted to a successful future for today’s youth.

We provide quality programs that engage a diverse group of children and youth. We utilize the “whole child” approach to develop each child’s full potential emotionally, morally, physically and intellectually. We operate a summer camp in South LA, we provide community service hours to youth from the area, and strive to hire those who are in college and are committed to our mission. We assist them in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, validate their needs and teach them that all children have purpose and potential. Our mission is to develop the whole child and equip children and youth with tools they will need to be the most successful version of themselves.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We are building an expansion of our services to include an after school program, tutoring services and partnering with community members to offer education workshops. As always,  we want to expand a love of reading in our youth!

I was a book worm growing up. My mother loves to read and passed the gift down to all of her daughters. I loved reading, was quite inquisitive and demanded answers for all of my questions. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was given to me, at a much younger age than most would read it. In fact, I don’t remember if my mother handed it to me or I just retrieved it off our family bookshelf. The book’s lessons have matured right alongside me, and it has consistently taught me about the importance of utilizing a village, the integration of culture and how it plays a role in acceptance of self, and the intense importance of self-awareness, and forgiveness.

Reading this book gave me a thirst for writing and learning about how people (including myself) operate. I remember being so invested in the balance of morality, accountability and grace. So much of my childhood was spent in church so it was thematic. My favorite biblical character was Solomon because I was impressed with the ask of wisdom. It took me quite some time to understand the demand for the application of wisdom, however. I told my father that if I was wise, I would use that gift to save the world. These were the types of conversations we would have as he used to take my sisters and I through Leimert Park to the various shops, and especially Eso Won Bookstore.

My corner of the city was magical. I fell in love with the culture, the history and the people. I was interested in the ever-changing developments, the strategies for the homeless population and the cultural components. I heard the drum circles in the park, saw the guys at the coffee shop playing chess and the displaced walking the area sans shoes. I vividly remember detailing plans to purchase a mansion, gathering up all who were displaced providing them with shelter, and running the logistics by my father.

He listened and told me to get on it, always reiterating that I can do anything I work hard for and that tomorrow begins a brand new day. These snippets stuck with me throughout my academic journey whether during challenging times attending the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) or the exhilarating moments as a senior at Crenshaw High School. I held on to it post-graduation from California State University Dominguez Hills (and as a new mother), while I completed my Masters at Loyola Marymount University.

Since then, I’ve imparted those same words to the children I service when they try new things, or the parents I serve as they tiredly wrestle their sleepy child into the car at 6 pm on a Wednesday after camp. In both instances, the goal is to leave a sprinkle of hope and sunshine at the end of the day. For the past six years I shown love to and for my community. And that service does not cease when camp ends. I’ve attended track meets, spelling bees, and birthday parties, etc, because even after camp we remain a source of support. Our business is seasonal, but our village is not.

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