Bursts of color pour through the plate-glass window and, once inside, you see creations that range from repurposed furniture to T-shirts to functional sculpture. The goods are youthful, fun and artsy; most are even practical.
A few months back, Urban Xpression opened its doors to give a creative and entrepreneurial outlet to area youth eager to meld art and business. The store also is the most visible manifestation of The WheelHouse, a program recently spun off from Jump Street, the community arts group long run by Bob Welsh.
“WheelHouse is an outgrowth of a program at Jump Street, which focuses on art-based workforce development,” Welsh explained. “The WheelHouse program is an innovative partnership in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) designed to give high school and college students real-world experience in live work environments—learning while earning a paycheck.”
Welsh arrived in Harrisburg in 1983, joining a “bunch of musicians” doing the club circuit. He owned and operated Green Room Records and the Green Room recording studio and was elected to the Grammy Academy.
Then came one of life’s defining moments. Welsh read in the Patriot-News about a school that had no musical instruments, so he decided to do something about it. Together with fellow musician Paul Kruis, he put together the Gift of Music program to collect instruments. He raised money among friends and acquaintances and found he was good at it.
The program’s first big gift—of more than 30 instruments—went to Ronald Brown Charter School.
A bit later, when Beverly Portis, executive director of MetroArts, precursor to Jump Street, announced her decision to move on, she recommended Welsh to the board of directors. He was appointed interim director, then executive director and served for 14 years.
Now, he heads Wheelhouse, a subsidiary of Jump Street, while remaining a staff member of the parent organization.
“This seven-figure-budget organization requires all my attention,” he said of The WheelHouse.
Wheelhouse projects give youth skills they need to be successful in future employment, while advancing high school and college education with in-demand areas of study.
Michael Mills, a senior at Harrisburg Academy, is one participant. Last summer, he was part of a student team tasked to design a store.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Mills, a Harrisburg resident who plans to get a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. “We worked with many professional artists and business people and other co-workers from Jump Street. We named the store, painted it, created a vision and mission statement, created a slogan for it, and decided what to put in it.”
The result: Urban Xpression, a youth-created shop focused on making and selling artistic goods. The students learn business planning, customer service, marketing, finance and entrepreneurship, while earning high school and/or college credits.
As part of the program, Mills, who is an assistant store manager, will be taking a college course in technology. Beginning this month, he also will be a paid apprentice.
In addition to Urban Xpression, The WheelHouse operates an Agtech program, which combines agriculture and technology, and a Community Tech program, which teaches students digital photography and technology-based design. Projects in finance and IT are likely to be added, said Welsh.
Students come from all over the region and from public, charter and private schools to participate.
“We try not to interrupt their school day,” Welsh said. “We work around their senior hours, co-op, study programs.”
Meanwhile, Jump Street, with its slogan of “connecting artist and community,” continues its own programming.
The Gift of Music, the project that originally drew Welsh into the nonprofit world, is expanding beyond the acquisition of instruments to the actual support of music programs. These are too often cut from schools because of budgetary concerns, said Melissa Snyder, the group’s interim executive director.
Jump Street also helps students who cannot afford to buy or rent an instrument to participate in music programs. Learning to play an instrument has many benefits, from developing language and reasoning skills to increased self-discipline and self-confidence, said Snyder.
“Music is a gift you can give your child that lasts their entire life,” she said.
Since 2001, the Gift of Music has collected and distributed more than 500 instruments to students in the Capital Region.
“Since the instruments stay in schools, we have easily reached 1,000 kids locally with them,” said Welsh.
Other events and programs sponsored by Jump Street include the annual Artsfest; the teen publication “and” magazine; and Paintin’ Lively, which teams teens with professional artists, who use their creative skills to refurbish furniture for sale.
While Welsh no longer is at the helm of Jump Street, he emphasized that Jump Street and WheelHouse are parts of a whole. They share office space, as well as a mission of bringing the community together and advancing youth through art.
“Almost 17 years at Jump Street taught me to do workforce development in arts and culture,” said Welsh. “WheelHouse is just an extension.”
The WheelHouse is co-located with Jump Street at 100 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg. Visit www.wheelhousepa.com. Urban Xpression is located inside Strawberry Square, 315 Market St., Harrisburg.