Release the Fear uses canvas, paint to help troubled youth

(Sayo Akao/DD)

In the 20 years since its inception, Release the Fear, a nonprofit organization based in Phoenix, Arizona, has aimed to better the community through the creative process.

Executive director and founder Robert J. Miley said that creativity allows people in his community to express their thoughts through art.

The community betterment organization is housed in a former church in the heart of downtown Phoenix. It provides programs for youth and young adults to participate in art as an outlet of expression, rather than violence or hate.

The walls of the organization’s gallery room are adorned with art participants of the program have created together. For Miley, that is one of the most empowering factors.

“It’s really a metaphor for what we can do as a community to learn not to desecrate someone’s thought, to accentuate it and build it up,” Miley said.

The creative process is a staple of Release the Fear’s programs and was a contributing factor in the program receiving accreditation as Character Education by the Arizona Department of Education.

Miley said the organization serves to remind children of character qualities such as respect, responsibility and citizenship through interactive work.

“The more they get engaged in it, the more fun they have and the more that it sticks too,” he said.

Program coordinator Sara Davirro works primarily with the volunteers who lead the different workshops and emphasized the positive impact the workshops have for the volunteers as well.

“As long as it fits … and we think that they’ll be comfortable and happy there, we’ll send them in. We’ve only had positive experiences,” Davirro said.

Davirro said volunteers for each workshop can range from Olympic athletes to nursing students and these people share their stories with workshop participants.

The six workshops offered are tailored to the specific group of children they are working with and include everything from a play where every character is a color to a four-day summer camp. Miley hopes to implement some programs from the summer camp, such as yoga and nutritional education, into an after school program with the financial help of the Walton Foundation.

The organization is funded by donations from multiple sources including foundations, government grants, corporations, and even individuals, according to an annual report prepared by the organization last year.

Miley said another new program he hopes to implement is the 2 Gen program, which will focus on parents and children and equip them with the tools to cross bridges together.

By working with multiple generations, Release the Fear can impact more people, Miley said.

“We think what we do affects us. But, it not only affects our community — it affects our world, he said. “Everything has a cause and effect.”

The organization’s effect on at-risk youth in the Phoenix community is evident in the work they have done with the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

“We are reducing recidivism through the art, meaning the return to jail, up to 11 percent plus,” he said.

Sixty-eight percent of Release the Fear workshop participants did not return to jail from 2012 to 2015 according to the organizations annual report last year. This is in contrast with the 57 percent of youth who stayed out of jail upon release, according to a three-year study conducted by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections that ended in 2003.

Miley said his own life path was positively influenced by the adults around him as a child who “insisted on people believing in [his] gifts rather than [his] test scores” and without the encouragement he “might be right where those kids were.”

“We don’t believe there is a such thing as a bad kid … we believe they haven’t found their gifts yet. That’s truly one of the major foundations of what we do is to help them find their gifts,” he said.

The effects of Release the Fear on individuals can be long term as is seen with former participant Mikayla Rhodes. Rhodes was part of the program in 2004 when she was 17 years old and credits the organization with changing the course of her life.

“I would not change my upbringing and all the things that happened in my life for one second because I love where I’m at now and meeting [Miley] and being a part of that group is a part of that path.”

“If he needs me I come running,” Rhodes said. Since her time participating in the program, she has gone back to volunteer, lead programs and assist wherever else needed.

“I don’t think that you can come in contact with everything that [the program is] about and not leave feeling differently, even if it’s for the next five minutes or the next five days,” she said.

Contact the reporter Olusayo.Akao@asu.edu.