From left: Denisse Cotto, Destiny Campbell, and Malek Hawkins hanging out at the DreamYard Art Center with their friend Caroline Kennedy.
The notorious South Bronx, with its weedy lots and raggedy buildings crouching low along desolate streets, radiates pretty much anything but joy. Stuck in the poorest congressional district in the country, nearly half of the residents live in poverty. But the funny thing about joy is, it can take root in the least likely places. It doesn't discriminate; doesn't need cash or lush surroundings to thrive. Come see: Joy is alive and well at the DreamYard Art Center in the tough upper reaches of New York City.

During an era of brutal budget cuts, the largely grant-funded DreamYard Project provides arts education by sending actors, dancers, painters, and poets into sorely underfunded Bronx public schools for year-long residencies. The art center, which opened in 2009, takes the mission a step further by offering an after-school oasis of inspiration, feedback, and community. For local kids yearning to rhyme and write, it's a place where they can harness their inner demons and better angels through poetry workshops and regular open mikes that transform the timid into truth tellers.

Inside, every surface—whether the blades of a ceiling fan or a tabletop or the seat of a chair—is painted bright green, red, yellow, or blue. A vast flock of delicate origami cranes in equally uplifting colors is suspended from the ceiling. There's a comfy couch, a kitchen, and a vibe of pure nurture that says you and whatever's on your mind are safe here—no matter the pain that comes walking through the door. On the walls are self-portraits by the kids, their facial features made from words. In one, the eyes are formed by faith, love, care, hope, fun, destiny, grace, peace; on another, the mouth reads I AM AFRAID TO DIE.

At about 4 P.M. on a chilly December day, the place starts to fill with kids wearing cornrows and close crops and hoodies of all colors, jangling with excitement about the open mike that's happening later on. There is Denisse, a high school senior with coppery crimped hair and a knowing gaze, who's been involved with DreamYard for six years, during which time her poetry has evolved from the stuff of teenage angst to informed riffs on global strife. "I've had different phases," she says. "In my first phase, all my poems were about my mom. The second phase was about domestic violence"—the kind she witnessed at the hands of her stepfather—"and how my mom is like my angel and I'll always defend her, how we're like soldiers for ourselves in that isolated world. And the next phase was about my dad and how much I need him, and him not being there. Now my phase is about America and what I think of it"—particularly the callous treatment of illegal immigrants. "Poetry," Denisse says, "has helped heal my pain."

According to sweet-faced Destiny, 15, whose expression toggles between sunny and brooding as she shoulders the hard fact of her mother's kidney disease, "Poetry is a way to let out every emotion that you have when you feel like you don't have anyone to talk to, or you just feel locked in. Just write it down and your paper and pen become your best friend."

Next: How Caroline Kennedy found her way to DreamYard


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