SeeSaw director a warrior for afterschool programs

By Taylor Rankin
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham Voice

The workroom buzzes with the whirs of sewing machines and the excited chatter of a slew of teenagers.  The group has been at school all day, and they have just finished a homework hour at SeeSaw Studio on West Geer Street in Durham.  Now it’s time to get creative, and the fruit of their labors surrounds them on the walls of the rather industrial space SeeSaw calls home, inspiring them to express themselves through their artistic talents.

Michelle Gonzales-Green instructs a group of SeeSaw Studio students as they draw a skateboard design. (Staff Photo by Taylor Rankin)

Another inspiration sits just a room away in a small office decorated proudly with the students’ creations from dresses to sketches.  Her name is Michelle Gonzales-Green, and she has championed the mission of SeeSaw Studio since 2007, when she began her responsibilities as director.

It’s basically a one-woman show at SeeSaw Studio.  Michelle mentors, instructs, answers emails and at the end of a long day, sweeps the floors.  She talks to the press, finds volunteers and manages finances at the small non-profit.  She’s also a mother, a wife and an advocate for afterschool programs across the state—programs that are struggling to stay afloat in these tough economic times.

“People always ask, ‘How do you do it?’ and I can’t really tell them,” Gonzales-Green says.

She attributes a lot of her relentless drive to the inspiration of the SeeSaw Studio “model.”

What started as an “art and business cradle for artists and crafters” has evolved into an organization that is “parent cooperative,” Gonzales-Green says.

Parents are essential to the day-to-day operations of SeeSaw Studio. “They have to volunteer, and they have to give snacks.  This way you create more stakeholders,” Gonzales-Green says.

Another element of the model that inspires Gonzales-Green is the college mentoring aspect.  She says, “Any child of ours that wants to go to N.C. State as a designer can get in based on the fact that they were a SeeSaw Studio designer.  As long as they meet the GPA requirement and have a decent portfolio, they have a place.  That’s a wonderful thing.”

In other words, Gonzales-Green doesn’t just babysit children after school for a few days a week.  She teaches them skills, prepares them for college and guides them toward successful careers after earning degrees.

“I know as a former single parent the ‘crucialness’ of being able to work and knowing my children are in a safe place,” Gonzales-Green says.

Hadassah Jones, 9, the daughter of SeeSaw Studio director Michelle Gonzales-Green, sketches a face in her collection of drawings. (Staff Photo by Taylor Rankin)

Beyond her responsibilities at SeeSaw Studio, Gonzales-Green has recently been chosen as an Afterschool Ambassador by the Afterschool Alliance program for 2011-2012.  She is just one of 20 ambassadors chosen nationwide for the honor.  Her tasks will include organizing public events, communicating with policy makers and building support for afterschool programs.

Gonzales-Green has already gotten started, successfully coordinating a “Lights On Afterschool” event for the Durham area to raise awareness about the importance of afterschool education.

Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant says that Gonzales-Green “will bring great skill and energy to her role as an Afterschool Ambassador.”

There may be no greater advocate of Gonzales-Green’s successes than her daughter, Hadassah, who, at 9 years old, is the unofficial mascot for SeeSaw Studio.

“Here is something my mom drew,” says Hadassah as she flips through a portfolio at SeeSaw Studio.  “Isn’t it great?  She has a show coming up in January.”

Even though SeeSaw works exclusively with children ages 12 to 18, Hadassah has been hanging out in the workroom since Gonzales-Green began working there.  She has aspirations to attend Durham School of the Arts and loves to draw and act.

Hadassah’s pride in her mother’s accomplishments, large and small, can easily be seen in how she entertains SeeSaw visitors with a tour and an informal question-and-answer session.  She knows almost everything about her mother’s involvement with SeeSaw Studio and divulges accomplishments that Gonzales-Green, herself, is too humble to convey.

Despite Hadassah’s enthusiasm, afterschool programming has come across hard times.  Grants are diminishing and individual donations are disappearing too as private donors have less expendable income to spare for charity organizations.

“Non-profit itself is bleeding,” Gonzales-Green says.

Gonzales-Green is doing all she can do to stem the flow at SeeSaw Studio.

SeeSaw Studio is always in need of support, both financial and volunteer.  Visit the website here to find out more.