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 2½ 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.

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