Battle Creek

Battle Creek's Mylestone Project: Where arts and understanding make a difference in young lives

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

It may be hard to believe now given Sean Washington’s commitment to working with at-risk youth in Calhoun County, but there was a time when he says he didn’t like kids and did everything that he could to steer clear of them.
 
Washington, Founder and Executive Director of the Mylestone (My life started with one) Project, leads the project that relies heavily on the use of a variety of different art formats to positively impact the lives of young people who will most benefit from additional positive supports in their lives. It took convincing to get him to believe working with youth was his calling.

Washington says that Sheila Matthews, one of his instructors at Kellogg Community College, talked him into working with kids during an internship. After four years in the United States Army, he enrolled at KCC where he earned an Associate’s degree in Human Services and went on to attend Spring Arbor College where he graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor’s degree in Family Life Education.
 
“I told her, ‘I don’t like kids and I’m not going to do it,’” Washington says of his discussion with Matthews. “I knew where I wanted to go. She saw something in me that screamed that I’d be good at working with kids.” I was put at this elementary school where I had one kid that I was working with.
 
Sean Washington talks with students at the the Calhoun Community High School.He was assigned to an elementary school where he was working with one child who had plenty of challenges, including a lack of support at home. That caught the attention of school administrators who knew the child could succeed if he just had someone who believed in him. To Washington’s surprise that “someone” turned out to be him.
 
“This was when I knew that if a child believes in me enough to put their faith and trust in me, I was going to do everything I could not to let them down,” Washington says.
 
As a child growing up in Battle Creek, Washington says he was the beneficiary of such support.
 
“It just takes one person to change another person’s entire life. It happened to me. It came from my family and friends. One moment changes everything. This is the foundational belief of Mylestone,” he says.
 
Mylestone was created in 2012 using the knowledge and experience he gained during previous jobs that included leadership roles at the former Wilson Edison Elementary School in Battle Creek; Planetarium Director at the Kingman Museum; and Support Specialist with the Advocates, a juvenile diversion program offered through the city’s Catholic parishes.
 
Sean Washington talks with students at the the Calhoun Community High School.In each of these jobs, he worked directly with youth and experienced firsthand the damage being done to some of them by circumstances that were not of their own making. These outside influences, including living in financially-challenged households and peers who were encouraging them to engage in negative behaviors, weren’t being balanced by the influence of supportive individuals. No one recognized the true potential of these youth and they weren't willing to work closely with them to make sure they knew they were valued.
 
Artists as teachers
 
Through Mylestone, Washington has drawn together a community of artists and gamers who share their talents and expertise with youth attending Calhoun Community High School, the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy (MYCA) and the Michigan Youth Jobs Academy, and youth who reside at the county’s Juvenile Home. 

On any given week, Mylestone is working with about 115 youth of all ages. Washington says he has a particular focus on those between ages 17 and 24 because “that’s that critical age where values are starting to solidify.”
 
As an example, he says, young people aren’t talking with each other about their views on race so whatever they learn from their parents serves as the base for their beliefs.  He says the message that sends is that this needs to be dealt with before they reach age 18 because after that whatever was passed down from their parents is what they will take with them going forward.

This is what leads him to say, “That age range needs so much more attention.”

Their work with the community’s youngest residents is part of Mylestone’s Out Loud initiative which uses nontraditional teaching platforms designed to help young people find their voice and give them opportunities to realize their full potential.
 
The Out Loud performers include a professional balloon artist, a juggler, a guitarist, gamers, and storytellers. Washington assembled this performance troupe as a result of his previous jobs.
 
“In the early years I made a lot of great connections at the schools and when they were cutting back and getting rid of different programs, I scooped the instructors up,” he says. 

Sean Washington talks with students at the the Calhoun Community High School.“The arts are always the first place where funding is cut and the last place to get funding. In the schools there used to be woodworking and machine shop and dance and theater classes. Those were the artistic outlets for these kids and ways for them to deal with the stress in their lives. Now, we’re teaching them to test and there’s no time for anything else. There is the push to drive more and more information at them and get those test scores where they need to be. It’s a struggle.”
 
Cuts to arts programming at schools are how Washington was able to bring on a dance instructor who has her own studio and also taught at the Battle Creek Public Schools and a guitarist who also worked for BCPS. The fees charged to organizations who bring in Out Loud performers are used to pay the artist and teach their craft to their young audiences.
 
“Whenever I find an artist who has a good spirit and expresses a desire to give back, I try to grab them up,” Washington says.
 
Among his finds is Preston, a professional clown and balloon artist, who recently visited with youth at the juvenile home to show them and teach them how to juggle and manipulate balloons into works of art. What he didn’t share with them is the chronic depression he lives with and how he uses his art as a coping mechanism.
 
Washington says he has received phone calls from Preston in the early morning hours to talk about a four-foot gorilla he has made out of balloons.
 
“Preston sometimes may not sleep for two days. He took up juggling to do some activity to work himself through his depressive times and sleep,” Washington says.
 
Even though Preston's own challenges aren’t part of his performance, Washington says he offers youth the tools and skills to deal with whatever mental issues they may be facing.
 
Sean Washington talks with students at the the Calhoun Community High School.“It used to be that kids started showing signs of depression when they were 15 or 16. Now it’s down to 12-years-old,” Washington says. “They’re preyed upon by social media and so many other things and everything they do feels so much more urgent.”
 
Evidence of Preston’s impact was made visible recently through a young woman who was not gang-affiliated but was on the first outer ring and could have become a gang member soon if she didn’t change the way she was living. Washington says she had health issues and things that were overwhelming her in the moment.
 
“Over the course of time she connected pretty well with Preston and he taught her balloon twisting. After the program I saw her at a Red Cross event working with kids and twisting balloons,” Washington says.
 
While Washington is more comfortable lifting up the impactful work of Out Loud’s artists and performers, he also teaches and demonstrates his own storytelling craft that leaves a lasting impression on the students he works with at the Community High School, says Rhonda Marcum, Superintendent/Principal.
 
She says Washington is “phenomenal.”
 
“The connections he makes and the relationships he builds, he can get kids to tell him anything,” Marcum says.
 
Rhonda Marcum, Ph.D., is the Superintendent of the Calhoun Community High School.The two got to know each other 10 years ago when Marcum was teaching at the Marshall Opportunity High School and Washington was working with the Towards No Drug Abuse, a national drug abuse prevention program that targets high school-age youth. When she was appointed at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year as superintendent/principal, she says, “He was my go-to for professional development for my staff and working with kids in in-school and after-school programming.”
 
His in-school time is spent working with students on life skills, coping mechanisms, and family dynamics and how that all plays out with drug use, Marcum says. He also works with kids at the school to determine their average substance use.
 
“When one of my students gets caught vaping in the bathroom, he meets with them and he screens them. But, with him it doesn’t feel like punishment because he lets them know that ‘We’re here to help you,’ so that these kids know they have an advocate and there’s someone there to help with coping skills,” Marcum says. “He’s built a relationship and can communicate with them effectively. The kids see him in the hall coming and going and talk to him. The fact that they are that open shows that his impact on them is huge. He tells them that their lives can be different from the way they’re living now and they don’t have to follow what their family and friends are doing.”
 
His afterschool work focuses on the use of his own storytelling skills and showing students how to find their voices to become their own storytellers.
 
“Storytelling is the first thing we do when we get around family and friends. As people start thinking about it from that perspective you think about all of the places where people ask you to tell a story,” Washington says. Oftentimes, the storytelling component of Mylestones work is complemented by other artistic mediums produced by the youth.
 
Washington just completed an eight-week session at the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy focused on the spoken word and art. A youth from Syria told the story of how his family escaped to Jordan and how their treatment in Jordan prompted them to come to the United States. An artist in the session took sections of his story and drew parables in art to go with his story.

As a member of a local scholarship committee, Washington says, “Kids come in with amazing stories. It’s a lot easier to get my vote if you can tell me a great story. You can hear in someone’s story when they got it or if they see it as just a stepping stone for them. We encourage kids in our classes to think about your life and how do you tell someone about it in moments.”
 
These storytelling skills are huge, he says, when it comes time to apply for a scholarship or a job. He says arts education gives youth the hard skills to get a job and the soft skills to keep a job.
 
Always open to new ideas and opportunities
 
In addition to the collaborative work he does with local schools and youth-focused organizations, Washington works with those in other communities who also use creative skills and art forms to show young people and adults the limitless opportunities they have to get unstuck.
 
In 2009, he co-wrote a grant with Gabriel Giron and the late Kirk Latimer, the co-founders of Kalamazoo-based Kinetic Affect and the nonprofit Speak it Forward, for a project titled “Speak Out Loud.” Kinetic Affect is a nationally-renowned, award-winning duo that featured the talents of Giron and Latimer, both spoken word artists who made a career out of inspiring youth and adults to follow their passions and live life for today.
 
Giron says their work with Washington was, “a cool collaboration” in which they were able to work with young men and women who were struggling in their lives with Washington providing wraparound support services to their families.

“We were working with and trying to reshape the perspective of what youth have gone through into a positive way of reflecting upon it,” Giron says. “But when they go back into the environment which they came from those cycles that brought them to us start all over again. Sean was able to provide support and a positive shift in youth coming back into the households.”
 
These shifts in outlook and perspective are what Giron, a cancer survivor, navigated as he was going through his treatment and healing journey. He uses a quote from American philosopher John Dewey to illustrate his thoughts: “It’s not the experiences that shape us but rather how we reflect on that that shapes who we are.”
 
While there were plenty of cancer patients who said this was the worst thing that ever happened to them, Giron says his own battle showed him what was really important in his own life and enabled him to focus on the positive as a way to change his own perspective. This is what he does with young people who feel like life hasn’t been kind or fair to them.

“If you have young man or woman selling drugs and they’re OK at it, we know they have some kind of entrepreneurial skills, but we look at them and say ‘You’re doing bad things.’ We help them to see that those same skills can be applied in legal and positive ways for community building,” Giron says.
 
Washington’s work to draw out those skill sets and show youth how they can be used in positive ways that will benefit them has expanded to include gaming and podcasts. There is a gaming league at the high school sports level which will give local youth participants opportunities to compete against their peers.
 
“A lot of people think the gaming community is made up of 40-year-olds living in their mom’s basement who game all day,” Washington says. “E-sports leagues are some of the most accepting groups in a nice, solid environment. When you’re with other gamers, you’re working on the mechanics of the game and learning about the communications and behaviors of yourself and your opponents. We’re putting kids in a room with veteran gamers where they can develop social skills through gaming.”
 
While there are those who have told Washington that the E-sports leagues are simply encouraging kids to play video games, he says  when you put youth in a room with people who have the same interests for them gaming is a coping mechanism.
 
“In a world where they may have 500 followers and they are sitting home alone on Friday nights, the one thing they need the most is a friend,” Washington says.
 
In late May, he is planning to host an exhibit/fundraiser that will give the youth he works with opportunities to showcase to the community the skills they have fine-tuned in storytelling, the arts, gaming, and podcasting. He’s hoping they will produce enough art to support a silent auction as part of the event.
 
“We don’t need exposure, we need financial support,” he says. “I would love to be able to expand the programming side so that every kid gets to try different things so they can discover what they like. The more classes I have going in schools and organizations during the school year, the more funding I have to do classes during the summer so kids can keep going. Mylestone can cover the summer programming because of what you paid during the school year.”
 
“I don’t want to be the president of these United States but I do have the aspiration to be the hand that moves things forward. I want to be the person who when people see me will say ‘he’s here on my side.’”

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.