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Teens to Know

This Jewish Teen is Helping Homeless Kids Find a Creative Outlet Through Art

Emilia Headshot

Emilia Peters, 17, thinks in colors, textures, and patterns. As she says, “art has always given me such a respite and I wanted to share that with others.”

Growing up near Los Angeles, Emilia frequently saw a lot of homeless children, and she wondered if they could find that same sense of calm and escape in art. So she and her friend, Kyra Kraft, developed KEM Creative Studios, an organization that brings free art classes to children in transitional housing and underserved communities.

In the past four years, KEM Creative Studios has taught complex art techniques to more than 500 students across Los Angeles and in Guatemala. Emilia says that every time she watches a child dive into a new art project, she sees them transform. Thanks to her transformative, artistic work, Emilia is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.

How did you first get excited about creating art?
I come from a really creative family, especially my mom. Art has always been something that I’ve done. It’s a passion.  

What’s your favorite medium?
I’ve always been into painting. I’m experimenting a bit with filmmaking and sculpture, but drawing and painting have always been my foundation.

Who’s your favorite artist?
That’s so hard. I really love Giacometti. The way that he sees the world and creates sculptures. I just love the way he interprets the world through his abstract art. And Frida Kahlo. I love the way she uses colors and represents herself through her art.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
The place I really want to travel to right now is Greece – Santorini. I’m obsessed with the architecture. I love the composition of the entire island and how all of the buildings look so good together. That really fascinates me.

Can you tell me about that first moment when you thought of the connection between homelessness and lack of artistic escapes?
I was planning for my Bat Mitzvah and was looking for a service project, and I wanted to include art in some way. Art has always served as an escape from stressors in my life and I wanted to share that with people whose stressors are so much greater than mine. My partner, Kyra, was also planning for her Bat Mitzvah project and wanted to incorporate art into it somehow. So, we started to collaborate, and it’s been really fun.

Tell me about some of your first classes…
The most rewarding thing I got from those classes was understanding the relationship I could have with someone whose life experiences were so divergent from my own. I’d never really talked to a homeless child before, so I didn’t know how this was going to go. But what I realized as soon as I walked in, was that the kids were so warm and friendly and engaged. They reminded me a lot of my little sister and her friends.

And what about the reactions you got from your art students?
A lot of the kids come in doubting themselves, saying they’re a terrible artist and they don’t want to be here. Or other kids will come in and be super rowdy. And art transforms a lot of the kids in our classes. They become very focused and engaged, blocking out everything around them. Which is fantastic because that’s the role that art has played for me. I think the most rewarding thing is having students applying the techniques they learned in our previous classes to new lessons.

What would you say is the hardest part about running KEM Creative?
Well, last year we hosted our first summer camp. We’d been doing weekend classes a couple of times a semester, and then we organized this camp that was five hours a day, five days a week for two weeks. We had 30 students, ages 4 to 14, and they just blew through our curriculum in half the time. So, we really had to learn how to accommodate different learning styles. We had to develop mini-lessons for kids who finished early.

How do you balance this work with being a teenager and going to school?
I’m really glad that I started this when I was younger and had more free time to devote to the project. As juniors and seniors, Kyra and I have been very busy, but our relationship with the shelters is great because it’s so sustainable. There is also a lot less time and energy needed to create a lesson also because we’ve already developed our curriculum. Now we get to focus on expanding. Which is why I’m so grateful for all the new connections I’m making thanks to the Diller Foundation Tikkun Olam Awards.

What’s next for the KEM Creative campaign?
Kyra and I are trying to plan for when we leave for college by taking more of a managerial role. We’re hoping to identify volunteers who want to take on creative leadership roles within KEM.

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