Kelly: Not out to change the world, writer tries only to bring 'something positive' to young inmates -
Published Friday, December 20, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:53 pm
Kelly: Not out to change the world, writer tries only to bring 'something positive' to young inmates

So why does a children's book author and illustrator spend Sunday afternoons in Omaha teaching art and guitar to youthful convicted prisoners?

When he could be home with his family, why demonstrate how to strum chords? Why show young veterans of the street how to paint with watercolors and chalk pastels?

Bruce Arant, 56, parries my questions with a question of his own: If he had been raised the way many of these inmates were, he said, who's to say that he himself wouldn't have committed crimes?

“I was raised in a very loving family,” Bruce said. “Most of these guys came from pretty harsh backgrounds.”

Once a crime victim himself — he survived an unprovoked beating by a trio of men — the married father of three said he realizes that some of the convicts he teaches have committed acts that seriously affected victims.

He is realistic, and says he is not out to change the world, let alone to change the course of a prisoner's life with art or music.

“The reason I do it is that at least I feel like I'm bringing something positive into that environment,” Bruce said. “It's not a big sacrifice for me to spend a couple of hours every other week.”

And so about twice a month for the past 2˝ years, he has headed to the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility. It opened 15 years ago just to the south of Eppley Airfield and houses about 60 inmates ages 16 to 21.

Marilyn Asher, religious and volunteer coordinator, said about 80 people donate time and talents at the prison.

“A lot of our volunteers have experienced incarceration or had a tough time in their teen years,” she said. “They have a real heart for these guys and can relate to them.”

Schools and churches also donate small gift bags for Christmas Eve or for inmates' birthdays.

Said Asher: “I can't tell you how many times I've handed someone a gift bag on his birthday, and he says, 'I've never had a birthday present.' And he's 18 years old! Many of them have no experience getting Christmas gifts.”

While Arant doesn't claim that he is making any huge changes in inmates' lives, Asher said she believes such activities do help with rehabilitation.

On Sunday, Bruce showed how to shade with chalk, and the class members quickly picked up on it.

“When kids are involved in crime, their world is very small and they don't know anything outside of that world,” Asher said. “When you introduce them to the arts, they find it's a whole new world.”

The prison also offers training in landscaping, horticulture and food preparation, as well as a chess club and academic classes leading to a GED. Also offered are programs on life skills and victim impact, and a class called Thinking for a Change.

Asher coordinates a mentoring program matching men on the outside with inmates. (If interested, call 402-636-8622.)

Art has made a difference in Arant's life. He graduated from Burke High School and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and he found that he could concentrate best on lectures if he was drawing or doodling.

Even in church today, he will draw on a Styrofoam cup if something in a sermon strikes a chord.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Bruce worked for the family-­owned F.M. Arant Co., a wholesaler of a variety of goods, traveling much of central and western Nebraska. Then he spent 20 years in magazines and custom publishing, commuting between Omaha and Washington, D.C.

Now he is a full-time writer and illustrator, and the 85-year-old Peter Pauper Press has published his hard-cover children's book, “Simpson's Sheep Won't Go to Sleep!” ($15.99.) He will give readings at schools, and will sign copies at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Barnes & Noble store at Oak View Mall.

The rhyming book is about a farmer named Simpson who needs to find a way — other than counting sheep — to get his flock to turn in for the night. It's a bedtime story aimed at ages 4 to 8.

In most families, reading to children is an activity that's common, even taken for granted. But that's not the case for many who live in poverty.

A lack of reading to preschoolers is often cited as part of the cycle in which some from poor families arrive in kindergarten trailing other kids in development. They have a hard time catching up, they fall further behind and some get an education on the streets, which leads to crime.

Bruce Arant doesn't want to know the details of what got his class members locked up, but he can empathize with victims.

Shopping for wallpaper supplies one evening in the days before cellphones, he stopped near 84th Street and West Center Road to call his wife from a phone booth. Across the way, he saw three “hillbilly” types in a pickup truck harassing an older couple in a parking lot.

When the young men saw him looking, they angrily drove to him, screaming and then beating him as he got back into his car. He was able to lock the door before suffering any serious physical injuries, and they left.

“It was the most horrifying experience I've ever had,” Bruce said. “They were just enraged, as though I had done something terrible. After they left, I sat there for 10 minutes and shook. It affected me for months. I still am always very aware of my surroundings.”

Two Sundays every month near the airport, he enters what he calls “pretty dark” surroundings. He gets searched even though he is known and wears an identification badge.

Maybe his art or his music will make a difference that day. Maybe not, but he keeps going back, volunteering without pay to teach inmates.

“Sometimes these tough guys will saunter in and say they can't draw, and I say, 'Yes, you can. I'll show you how to do it,' ” Arant said. “Then they'll paint or draw something, and they realize they just did it. The most satisfying thing to me is to see the looks on their faces.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

Some city streets remain closed
EB L Street lane to close
Owners of exotic dance bar deny prostitution allegations
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
8% of alcohol sellers checked in Omaha area last week sold booze to minors
OPS bus, SUV collide; no students onboard at the time
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Lori Jenkins, charged as accessory in 4 murders, waives speedy trial
Iowa State servers hacked, nearly 30,000 SSNs at risk
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
2nd District House race: After 8 terms, Lee Terry knows how D.C. works — and doesn't
Bellevue man is killed at Minnesota dance hall after South Sudanese basketball tourney
Spring corn planting still sputters in Nebraska, Iowa, other key states
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
U.S. Senate race: State Auditor Mike Foley defends Shane Osborn against ad campaign
Public defender to represent Nikko Jenkins in sentencing
Mid-America Center on track for lower operating loss
Bluffs City Council approves dozens of new numbered street lights
National Law Enforcement Memorial Week set for May
Ted Cruz backs Pete Ricketts' campaign for governor
Omahan charged with 5th-offense DUI after street race causes rollover
< >
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Breaking Brad: Kraft wiener recall is business opportunity for TD Ameritrade Park
Instead of returning the wieners, TD Ameritrade Park is calling them "cheese dogs" and charging double.
Breaking Brad: Photos with the Easter Bunny are so 2010
In a sign of the times, most kids ran out of patience waiting for a photo with the Easter Bunny at the mall, just snapped a selfie and went home.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »