The power of art is phenomenal. Apart from being a source of pleasure it can also heal, educate and empower. And this is exactly what START, a Dubai-based charity initiative, is hoping children will achieve through its programmes.

Acronyms have a way of stultifying good intentions. Take START for instance. The initial reaction somebody might have when they see this moniker is a weary 'not another gung-ho charity outfit'.

But you will be in for a surprise when you learn that for a start (pardon the pun), it is NOT an acronym. It is just meant to convey the intentions of the people behind the effort - to start creating a positive change in the lives of children.

Launched by Al Madad Foundation (a registered UK charity which has been in existence for seven years), The Prince's Drawing School and Art Dubai (formerly the DIFC/Gulf Art Fair), in March last year, START aims to bring art into the lives of socio-economically and culturally deprived children throughout the Middle East.

More than that, it encourages artists to become volunteers in the field of humanitarian aid and education.

The organisation describes itself as a 'joint initiative creating opportunities for children and young adults to become part of an international creative partnership ... a programme that links child development with arts education'.

At the art of it all
What it attempts to do is to use art as a means to 'heal, educate and empower the younger generation in disadvantaged areas in the Middle East and elsewhere'.

Providing an outlet for artistic creativity would not be the first thing many would consider doing for under-privileged children. But Sonia Brewin, director of the Dubai-based charity, is firm that art is of utmost importance to growing minds.

For a start (there we go again), Brewin is not your regulation career charity worker; she is an artist first. "I am a painter and I worked for The Prince's Drawing School in UK which was set up by Prince Charles," she says, explaining how she came to be involved with START.

"I was running programmes for children in one of the biggest councils of London.''

Essentially, the group used to bring together artists and children and conduct workshops to get children interested in art.

"Such activities tend to be very relaxing and calming for children and you could see the benefits: children returned with their friends for the next session.

"So when Prince Charles happened to talk to the founders of START in the UK, he told them about the programme I was running for schoolchildren.

"They liked what I did and wanted to use the model not only in Dubai but across the Middle East. The Al Madad Foundation got together with Art Dubai and launched START here in March."

The patrons ...
The project operates with the help of regional artists. "START uses art as a tool to help deprived children widen their perception of the world and help them explore their skills," says Brewin.

"When I came here in March I met with a special needs school and an Indian high school. We devised workshops where special needs and able-bodied children could work together at a place to create crafts and drawings.''

Finding it successful, they opened up the event to the general public. "Later, we invited an artist to set up his installation on the beach. The idea was that adults and children would see his work, come over and talk to the artist about his work and be inspired by him."

Brewin is very clear about how to take START forward. The programme is all about getting artists to teach their skills to children and encourage and hone children's talents.

"Organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres recognise that people like doctors or teachers have particular skills. Similarly there are people in other walks of life, like artists, architects, designers, set designers, film screenwriters who have different sets of skills.''

Not many people have realised that the skills of these people can be used as a tool to educate and empower children.

A programme like START - which utilises the skills of such people - could go a long way in improving the condition of children "who have been traumatised by associated physical conditions which are positively damaging to their psyche," says Brewin.

Going with the flow
True to its free-spirited nature, START does not have a permanent teaching team. It instead recruits practising artists and arts professionals as volunteers.

In fact, the organisation requests for volunteers (through its website) and invites them to use their skills to 'fundraise, set up a workshop or champion an international aid programme, or even develop something tailored to your skills and available time'.

Says Brewin: "We have awareness programmes for artists where they get to know what they can possibly teach these children and what is expected of them.

"The artists are trained by a trainer, essentially an artist-educator. Since our 'teachers' are not art teachers
but artists, graphic designers, sculptors, architects, photographers ..., they need to be trained on teaching skills."

The workshop does not follow a rigid schedule and that is one of the highlights of this programme and perhaps a reason why it becomes an enriching experience for both the pupils as well as the teachers.

"We also work with children in orphanages, with those who have conditions like autism or Down's Syndrome, with kids in SOS villages or refugee camps ...''

The artists meet these children once every week and give them basic lessons in art. If it is a photographer, then he/she may do three or more workshops with them - essentially taking the children from the basics of taking a picture right through to the finished photograph.

Executing a creative thought ...

Step by step
START expects its volunteer artists to offer more than just a hands-on practical experience to kids. Even a one-off lecture that enables children (and even START student volunteers) to develop their understanding of art and its various ramifications is welcome.

"Children's workshops are designed by START around each artist's speciality and time commitments. Thus architects, curators, designers, draughtsmen, film makers, painters, photographers, puppeteers, sculptors, etc, can demonstrate their talent in their own way.

"We even organise studio visits for up to 10 children to show them how art is professionally made. Showing them pieces that are currently in progress is also part of the deal. The idea is to give them an understanding of the day-to-day development of art and the inspiration that drives it.''

Every year START invites five associated artists/arts partners to provide the core of the education programme for that year.

To provide stability to the rolling programme of events, these ambassadors are requested to work for an accumulated (not necessarily consecutive) 12-week period with children in the Middle East.

During the year the ambassadors will have the opportunity to exhibit as part of START at the DIFC Gulf Art Fair.

The programme often ends up being mutually beneficial: "Artists can learn a lot from sustained exchanges with children and young people alike," says Brewin.

START also welcomes donations of art works. These are either auctioned at the DIFC Gulf Art Fair to raise funds for workshops and other activities, or they are acquired for a permanent public art for children collection in the Middle East.

"This is a dream of the START family: to start the first children's gallery exhibiting a permanent collection of contemporary art around which education programmes can be developed continuously,'' she says.

Who qualifies?
So, is START only for special needs children? Not at all, says Brewin. "But yes, it's basically for children in need.

"It's meant for every country in the Middle East. We've been working for about six months now in the UAE and we have been to Lebanon and Jordan.

"The children who are in need in each country are quite a specific group. (In this region), I'd say, there's not much of social problems. So here I thought the best thing is to work with children with special needs so it's easy to identify who would benefit from it."

Making a splash
START is keen to help any child who has been deprived of the chance to learn any kind of art. "We are also offering the programme to children who do not have an art programme as part of their school curriculum," says Brewin.

"Essentially we feel such children will grow up without having much creativity in their lives.

"What we are trying to do is getting them to attend after-school classes at the DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates, so that they are able to articulate their creative thoughts in a better way.''

In the UAE, Brewin encouraged many organisations and special needs groups including the Special Needs Foundation, to use her model of art education in their courses.

"We believe it's not enough to just talk to children about art and encourage them to look at art works in sketchbooks. We take children to galleries so they can see how a piece of art is created. Quite a few artists have made space for us in their galleries," she says.

Brewin is planning workshops for children at DUCTAC in Mall of the Emirates, collaborating with Art Dubai, with a commitment to further art education in the city.

Brewin is looking even further ... such as helping children in Mosul, Iraq. "For each country we do some research as to who we can work with, who's going to benefit, etc. That's how we pool the resources.

"In Lebanon we used the National Museum or the Modern Museum which is situated very close to the area where there was violence. Hence the children had never been to the museum even though it was in their city.

"They even had an artist who took them around and explained the masterpieces. He also held a painting workshop in there," she says.

But what was the highlight of the day was definitely the look on the children's faces: "It was really exciting to see them enter the museum and realise that there is this wonderful space in the middle of their city where they could appreciate art,'' says Brewin.