His probation officer suggested it again the next year, but Zuniga preferred to work with his father. When his probation officer mentioned it for the third time, Zuniga decided to try the program and took his first step to changing his life.
Zuniga began the program like so many of the other 12,000 students Creative Solutions has served since its debut in 1994. "When I started, I was here because my probation officer told me to be here. I was really anti-social. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. It helped me come out of my shell. The staff really listens to me."
The staff’s ability to listen and gain the trust of these young probates is key to the program’s success. The staff knows the students are dealing with trauma, problems at home and mental and emotional issues.
Allison Caldwell, Creative Solutions’ Project Director, describes the transformation, "The demeanor of the kids changes dramatically. They have issues with authority figures and their walls are up. The staff hasn’t earned their trust yet. We have to make them feel like they are heard. It’s a slow process at first, but it accelerates quickly when they know the staff is in their corner."
Once the students begin making eye-contact, shaking hands willingly, and smiling more, the staff of teaching artists begins learning a students’ interests, tailoring their involvement in the program to their needs.
Some students find writing is their ideal outlet, crafting poetry to reflect their emotions. Some students want to do something more physical like beating on drums to express their anger. Percussion becomes their focus.
"Acting and dancing helps me escape reality and lets me become someone else," said Zuniga. He was first drawn to acting, but he had to be convinced to attempt dancing. "One of the staff got me into dancing. I was afraid I was going to make a fool of myself," he said. He discovered dancing helps him express himself through physical movement rather than violence.
Creative Solutions has opened many doors for Zuniga. He is an AmeriCorps volunteer, working as an assistant choreographer to teach kids dance steps. He shadowed directors and designers at Telemundo 39, NBC Universal’s Spanish-speaking station in Dallas, twice last year.
He describes that experience as amazing. "Am I actually here? I never thought I would be in such an important place like that. I felt important," he said.
At the Creative Solutions 20th anniversary luncheon, Zuniga spoke about his experience with the program and caught the attention of Jorge Baldor, a local businessman and supporter of Big Thought. Baldor is currently sponsoring Zuniga’s college education at El Centro Community College. Zuniga is studying to be a surgical technician while continuing to study performing arts. His parents are from Mexico and Zuniga is the youngest of seven children. He is the first in his family to attend college.
Creating success stories like Zuniga has been the mission of Lisa Schmidt, Big Thought’s Director of the Center of Excellence, for 22 years. She started with Big Thought in 1994. In her first year at the organization, she realized the effectiveness of sending teaching artists into juvenile detention facilities. She wanted to build on that success with a program for probates.
Schmidt ran into some challenges immediately. "Getting the probation officers to trust us with their probates was very important," Schmidt said. "I had a theatre degree. What would I know?" Now, the probation officers are the program’s first advocates. "Officers noticed the kids were calmer and they could express themselves better," she said.
The Social Skills improvement System analysis of the past two Creative Solutions summers echo the probation officers’ experience with students who have been through the program. 41 percent of the students increased their social skills by more than five percent and 40 percent of students decreased their problem behavior score by more than five percent.
Schmidt remembers alumni of the program stop by to say 'hi' and 'thank you.' "They ask, 'Do you remember me?' They tell me their name and I remember what they created. Both parents and alumni say, 'You changed my life.' Wow."
Schmidt and Caldwell know there is more work to do. Schmidt points out that there are fewer probates than there were 22 years ago, but the probates have committed more serious crimes and suffer from more mental illnesses. The Creative Solutions staff constantly trains for these increasing needs such as post-traumatic stress disorder, youth brain development, gang issues, and conflict resolution. The staff also networks with other programs across the nation and even in South Korea to learn how they can better help these at-risk students.
Caldwell explains the hurdles society has placed on the probates very early in life. "We're constantly dealing with the negative labels placed on the kids. We are navigating other people’s perception of what these kids can do," said Caldwell.
Both Schmidt and Caldwell hope to further develop preventive programs before a student ends up on probation as well as help students who have aged out of the juvenile justice system when they turn 19.
Zuniga has already benefited from Creative Solutions’ help as he began his college application process.
"They gave me tips on college, told me what to expect, helped me with financial aid forms, and explained how to get in. The Creative Solutions office is near my school and I can use their computers for my school work," Zuniga said.
He has a special bond with newcomers to Creative Solutions. "When someone becomes depressed in the program, I know how it feels. I can tell them they are not alone. If I can do it, you can do it."
As the 2016 summer program culminated in a performance at the end of July, one of the students in the program approached Zuniga. "You are a big inspiration." Caldwell could not agree more, "It’s people like Frankie that make Creative Solutions feel more like a family than an arts program."
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.