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Good Works | By Allison Williams

There’s hope in this hardscrabble neighborhood. In Bonnie Doone, just off Bragg Boulevard, Ashton Woods is a haven of small cinderblock houses. Most folks come here as a last resort. Sometimes, they’ve been living on the street or in cars, or simply stretching their welcome with family and friends. Many of them – 80 percent – are children.

“I haven’t met a child yet that has contributed to their homelessness,” said Denise Giles, director of Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Some of them have seen more than most adults, forced to rely on themselves or siblings for basic security. And yet, creativity thrives here.

Every summer, like clockwork, the artists arrive, artists who spend their days creating shapes out of clay, glass and metal. They unroll toolkits with brushes and paints, spongy pastels and powdery chalks. For five days, all day, the members and friends of Cape Fear Studios lead a summer art camp for the children of Ashton Woods. About two weeks later, the kids and their parents travel downtown in limos, sipping sparkling grape juice in plastic champagne flutes for a red-carpet showing. Every other year, the show includes an auction where the children’s artwork is sold, with proceeds going to Cape Fear Studios.

The program is made possible thanks to a grant from the Cumberland Community Foundation. Cumberland County Schools provides lunch. But it’s the volunteers from Cape Fear Studios who lead, teach and mold children, kindergartners to teenagers.

“This is a unique program,” Giles said, “it’s not something that happens all over the state. It’s an unusual collision of people. There’s no value you can put on the esteem being raised in a child through this process. They literally walk taller. I can’t explain it, you’d almost have to see it.”

For the second year in a row, Rose Kennedy will lead this summer’s workshop with help from fellow artist Sherry Young. Last year, more than a dozen different artists, all specializing in different kind of media, volunteered to teach.

“They educate us as well,” Kennedy said. “Some of the kids come in, and they may be a little aloof. But by the time they get into the project ….” Kennedy trails off with a smile because it’s hard to describe the satisfaction both student and teacher feel when delicate tissue-paper wind catchers and beaded starfish emerge from children’s hands.

Interfaith Hospitality Network is best known for its partnership with local churches that open their fellowship halls, gymnasiums and Sunday schools as emergency shelter for the homeless. Less well known is Ashton Woods – 20 two-bedroom homes where families may live for two years, saving for a home of their own. Families must complete a program of paying off debt and saving a significant chunk of their income. Since 1998, dozens of families have completed the program and are now self-sufficient.

For the Santos family, those two years are almost up. Christine Santos smiles wistfully when she thinks about the summer deadline. She has been living in Ashton Woods with her husband and their two young children.

“They opened doors and hands for us,” she said.

Before they came to Ashton Woods, the family lived with her brother. But when he and his wife decided to move, the family couldn’t afford the rent on their own. They were facing eviction when Santos found Ashton Woods. Now, it’s a haven for their 3-year-old daughter, who attends Ashton Woods’ on-site HeadStart program and 8-year-old Lance.

Lance has attended the art camp two summers in a row. “When I heard ‘art camp,’ I thought it was going to be out in the woods,” he said. When he found out it meant full-day lessons of art, one of his favorite subjects, he had one word: “Cool.”

But the thrill came when one of Lance’s works of art, a turtle created from pastels, sold for $350 at that summer’s auction, a record amount. That was the first year. At last summer’s show, Lance dressed up in a suit and tie and had his picture taken with the mayor, another high point.

This summer, Christine hopes Lance will have one last chance at art camp before the family moves. “If we leave here, I’m going to cry,” Lance said. “I really, really like living here.”

But the Santos family knows they will make room for the next family, the next child to earn a spot in the Ashton Woods art camp.

“When people lose hope, and they don’t dream, that’s what poverty is,” Giles said. “Creativity is required for hope to exist, even where hope has been lost. Whether it’s with clay or on paper … it feeds that ability to dream.”