West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology, an afterschool program for urban high school stdents, opened in 2005 downtown after three Steelcase leaders flew to Pittsburgh to learn about a similar non-profit there. Spearheaded by Jim Welch, the trip convinced Jim Hackett and Peter M. Wege that what Bill Strickland had started in Pittsburgh could be replicated in Grand Rapids.
A gang member growing up in the 1960s, Strickland was headed in the wrong direction until he stumbled on pottery making. Because this creative activity saved him from street life, he started a program called Manchester Bidwell offering after-school educational classes to inner-city teenagers.
Today WMCAT is serving 150 GRPS students who come after school to their building on Fulton where they take classes in the Teen Arts + Tech program. Class size is limited to 12 students and all the art classes are taught by professional teaching artists.
Art students learn ceramics, illustration and fashion design. Students in the technology side learn to make video games, create audio and video productions, and study photography. In addition, WMCAT has 36 under- or unemployed adults who come four days a week to learn medical billing, coding, and pharmacy tech so they can find good jobs in the healthcare field.
WMCAT—pronounced WIMcat—also operates a commercial screen-printing business called Ambrose that trains five-ten apprentices a year. The apprentices graduate from the program with a marketable job skill, knowledge in entrepreneurship, and the real-world experience of having run a for-profit business.
Last fall WMCAT’s success was recognized nationally. At a November White House ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama named WMCAT one of the top 12 winners of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Awards from among 251 nominees. Along with a $10,000 grant, this honor identifies the nation’s best after-school and out-of-school youth programs that use the arts and humanities to improve academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollments.
Pictured Above: From the left, Gen-Dairec Buchanan and Earl Shepherd, two Ambrose apprentices, Jody Price and Kary Furtado Wege Foundation, Wege family members Patrick Goodwillie, Jenny Wege, and Christopher Carter holding the new bags they made in Ambrose, the closeup shows the WMCAT logo. Supporter of WMCAT from its beginning, The Wege Foundation provides multi-year grants supporting the Teen Arts-Tech program.