Artistic Voices


Every year, thousands of kids and their parents gather at the Children’s Arts Festival to put their creative minds to work. They spend the day at the Richmond Cultural Centre making hats, learning how to dance, and having their faces painted. Last February, they even collaborated on a giant Box City. The festival, presented by the BC Children’s Art and Literacy Centre and the City of Richmond, has provided an outlet for kids to express themselves creatively for the past six years.

“I think it’s important for kids so that their artistic voices are continually valued,” says Debbie Tobin, the Artistic Director for the festival.

The festival started out as an idea brainstormed on a napkin and an envelope when Tobin, who is a teacher, was having a rough year. She was facing a particularly challenging class composition and had one child who was struggling to the point where she did not know how to reach him.

“I had one really, really special kid … he didn’t talk, he didn’t want to come in the classroom, he didn’t want anything,” Tobin says.

She had no idea how she was going to help him.

“I watched him for two weeks at the beginning of the year and I noticed he was drawing absolutely everything I was saying and that’s how he was learning,” she says. At the same time, she was involved in getting the B.C. Children’s Art and Literacy Centre started, which is the organization that would eventually put together the festival. “The two worlds just collided,” Tobin says.

Box City 625

The Children’s Arts Festival gives children a place to express themselves artistically and a place where their artistic talents are celebrated, a concept sparked by Tobin’s student.

“Every teacher has one kid I think in their career that changes their whole life and the way they think, and that’s the kid for me,” Tobin says.

Many years later, the napkin-and-envelope idea has turned into a huge arts festival complete with face painting, performances, hat and wand making, and drawing stations. There are also creativity classes throughout the day, which give kids the chance to learn skills such as animation, puppet-making, juggling, dance, and musical theatre. This coming year, all of the old favourites can be expected, with some new twists, including an appearance by Barbara Reid.

Another component of the festival, which has grown a lot since it started, is their School Days program, which has become so popular there was a waitlist last year. The program is based on a field trip where teachers bring their classes to participate in two creativity classes, go ice skating, and have fun with creating projects at a variety of imagination stations.

Part of the success of the festival is due to its uniqueness. It gives children opportunities that they do not often get.

“This is a very unique way for kids to get to explore another side of who they are,” says Tobin. It is a space where children who excel at the arts get to be leaders and where those who have not had the opportunity to test their creative talents get to explore their artistic sides, try new things, and see what they are good at in a safe environment.

While the festival started out small, it hasn’t stayed that way. The introduction of Family Day and the decision to hold the festival on the new holiday saw it grow exponentially, and grant money helped bring the festival to another level. “It really got big when we got our first donor, which was the Richmond Community Foundation,” Tobin says. “They gave us enough to push the school program over the top.”

In 2011, the Community Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant to the BC Children’s Art and Literacy Centre to help pay for the cost of artists and their supplies for the 2012 Children’s Arts Festival. “I’m so grateful to the Foundation because they were the first people to believe in us,” Tobin says. “That year was the year we could bring in so many more kids.”

The help from the Foundation ended up doing a lot more than providing the funding the festival needed to expand. “It opened up a lot of doors that were not open before,” Tobin says. “It gave us credibility that we didn’t have.”

The Children’s Arts Festival will be heading into its 7th year next February. It is held at the Richmond Cultural Centre on Family Day, and was attended by approximately 15,000 people in 2014. It took the hard work of a crew of 150 volunteers, City staff, and about a dozen organizers to pull it off.

And it was all worth it.

“To see the kids’ faces – priceless,” says Tobin. “We are giving children an opportunity that they would never have and allowing their voices to shine in a very public manner.”