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DAREarts Spirit Bear mural by youth of Marten Falls First Nation DAREarts photoDAREarts

To mark Canada 150, the Stratford Festival has set up a project in collaboration with DAREarts – an organization for children and teenagers who don't fit in and don't feel good about themselves. These kids are considered at risk of not reaching their potential.

In 21 years, DAREarts has reached more than 200,000 children and youth across Canada, using the arts to empower them with the confidence and courage to ignite change in their lives.

This year's programs will culminate when eight kids from Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario visit Stratford in late August, accompanied by four chaperones, says Marilyn Field, who quit her job as a teacher at a Scarborough school to found DAREarts in 1995.

The DAREarts group going to Stratford consists of two kids from each of four remote spots called fly-in places because they can't be reached by road or rail.

The kids will be seeing a new play called The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy and it is sure to strike a chord for them. It's set in the Arctic, features Inuit actors and is directed by Reneltta Arluk of Akpik Theatre Company.

The play tells the story of a polar bear over 500 years, including encounters with the crew of the Franklin Expedition and numerous other humans.

On their visit, they will deliver work they have done creating stories, songs and art about the polar bear. They will attend a matinee performance on Sunday, Aug. 27, followed by a talk about it with Antoni Cimolino, the festival's artistic director.

This is a costly venture, running about $100,000. The airfare alone is about $1,200 for each of the participants.

The funding for this project has come in large part from the Ontario government's Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which gave $86,468 as an Ontario 150 project.

"We provide teaching artists, such as an actor or set designer, and these artists have been trained by professional educators on how to pass on the skills of working with young people," Cimolino explains. "This is all part of the way DAREarts and the Stratford Festival jointly put together a program enabling young people to express themselves."

When the kids talk to Cimolino after seeing Breathing Hole, he says they will discuss concepts of the North.

"The work they do is creating songs and art around the story of a bear," he says. "All that culminates when they see Breathing Hole and, meanwhile, their own work is on display in the lobby for the run of the play.

"We'll talk about what the kids have observed in their own communities," Cimolino says, "what they have learned from the elders there, and what they hope for."

"When I was a teacher at an elementary school in Scarborough, I was always interested in the arts," Field says. "Other teachers took my class for phys ed so I could focus on the arts, including music, dance and drama. It was the kids who taught me how important the arts were to them – especially because they were from families facing tough socioeconomic obstacles."

She recalls fondly how 12 or 15 kids would arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. on a cold, snowy morning in order to attend practice sessions for the band, the choir or visual arts.

"Some were poorly clothed. Some had bare feet. Yet they all had huge smiles on their faces."

At that point, Field realized that in order to have impact, she would have to leave her job and give up her paycheque. So she went on leave and remortgaged her house to set up DAREarts.

"But no charity can be you alone," she says.

It was her vision, but with that came the advice of a businessman who was later to become her husband, J.C. Pennie.

Over the past two decades, they have taken little compensation and usually none.

For Stratford, this year's collaboration with DAREarts was a way for members of the festival staff to gain insight into northern Indigenous communities for the first time.

"These kids and others across Canada are at risk because they don't have the opportunity to go to concerts, play sports, or visit galleries and museums," Field says. "Even if they're smart and capable, they can be bullied. Some may have to make a choice between buying dinner or getting a bus ticket to go somewhere."

Testimonials from kids show they are grateful to DAREarts for helping them find the courage to stay in school and formulate goals, she says.

Aldona Volunge, principal of Elmbank Junior Middle Academy in Rexdale, Ont., says DAREarts programs in all areas of the arts have led the students to more confidence, greater communication skills, greater pride and the ability to believe in themselves and their futures.

"What they need," Field says, "is the opportunity to dream, to work and to have hopes for their future."

Jeff Lemire says he worked on his new graphic novel Roughneck at the same time as the Gord Downie project, Secret Path. The illustrator says “Roughneck” addresses themes of violence and addiction in indigenous communities.

The Canadian Press