“It’s good for stress relief,” says one red-haired girl. “It gets our creative juices flowing so we can be like a kid.”

“It helps you build character traits–so you can stay out of here,” adds a guy.

“Here” is the Washtenaw County Youth Center, aka “juvenile detention.” And “it” refers to the Youth Arts Alliance, which runs weekly ninety-minute workshops in visual arts, theater, and creative writing for incarcerated kids age eleven to seventeen.

U-M social work grad Heather Wilson stumbled into what became a passion. As an undergrad at EMU, she piloted a graphic novel workshop at Ozone House, then was hired by the U-M Prison Creative Arts Project to provide arts workshops in juvenile centers around the state. There, she says, “I kept hearing the same messages from those incarcerated: ‘If I had this opportunity sooner, would my path be different?'”

Impressed by Wilson’s work, Washtenaw County Youth Center director Lisa Greco found funding from Washtenaw, Lenawee, Livingston, and Monroe counties to launch the Alliance two years ago (Jackson County has since joined as well). With just two paid staffers–creative director Brittany Curran is the other–the nonprofit depends on volunteer artists, students, and community members to run the workshops.

Participants are incarcerated for everything from “from shoplifting to drugs, rape, murder, assault, [and] carjacking,” says Greco. “But whatever they did on the outside,” she continues, “all of them participate. It’s part of their programming–and they love it. And it’s perceptible that the kids are calmer.”

Wilson agrees that “because kids are engaged,” there are fewer behavioral incidents during their stay. While the Alliance lacks follow-up data on what happens when the kids are released, anecdotal evidence is encouraging. “We have kids who go home and submit creative writing through our Facebook page,” says Wilson. “We have kids trying out for plays for the first time.”