- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

LANSING TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Wasteland.

That’s the word Mitchell Thomas used to describe the former General Motors sites along Saginaw Highway.

“It was just this big old parking lot and there were weeds all over the place,” Thomas, 21, of Lansing, told the Lansing State Journal (http://on.lsj.com/1MQ8a6h ). “I was thinking we could really make this place something. Art changes everything.”

“I was thinking we could really make this place something. Art changes everything.”

Over the last two years, Thomas helped work on transforming 12 bland concrete barriers into different mosaics through his involvement in the former Next Step program at Peckham Inc., a nonprofit vocational rehabilitation organization. Peckham partnered the 100 youth in its various programs with 30 Michigan State University students to complete the project, which was aimed to improve part of the Lansing community.

“Everyone wanted something done with that parking lot because it was such an eye sore,” said Sarah Britton, youth manager at Peckham, which has programs that cater toward adjudicated or incarcerated juveniles. “We wanted to make one of these lots more encouraging and inspiring to people.”

Today, a 250-foot stretch of land has been transformed into a piece of art called Project RestART. Words like “#LoveLansing” and “courage” are worked into mosaics depicting downtown’s cityscape. Wooden frames above the barriers were erected and children from Riddle Elementary added butterfly art. The immediate area of the parking lot near the barriers was painted as well. The project was unveiled in late October.

“It turns a site that we all avoided talking too much about into a site of dialogue and discussion,” said Vincent Delgado, assistant dean for Civic Engagement at MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and a Lansing City Council member.

Delgado and his students teamed up with others from the MSU’s College of Engineering to design the project and buy the supplies for the youth at Peckham.

“It was very eye opening,” said Liz Martin, now an MSU junior, who taught the Peckham youth how to create mosaics. “It taught me the importance of collaboration. It was the best experience I’ve had at MSU.”

Project RestART had the same effect on the Peckham youth.

“It changed everything for the better,” said Thomas, who was referred to the program by his case manager so he could work toward his GED. “Just being there made me want to do better. It was a good opportunity to show my artistic ability.”

Thomas was a homeless youth living at Gateway Community Services before he entered Peckham’s program two years ago. He said being able to work on the mosaics with MSU students helped him learn the value of teamwork.

Though he wasn’t able to attain his GED before he left the program, Thomas was able to get a job as a cook at a fast food restaurant and move into an apartment.

“If it wasn’t for Next Step and its support system, I don’t think I’d be where I am at now,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t have a job.”

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com

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