Growing Humans, One Paint Brush at a Time

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Although Kinley Koontz has started a “Garden Project,” she’s not growing plants. She’s bringing art supplies to the poor and homeless, because the 15-year-old wants them to experience the personal growth that happens through self-expression.

“We’re helping to grow people,” she says. “I see people as flowers: All different but all beautiful, and you just have to give them water and sunshine to grow. I’m just providing the water and soil, and they are creating the beauty.”

Ashlee Price, a member of The Garden Project board, recalls being mesmerized by this description, and by Koontz’s further metaphor that “you can’t tell how a person is by the seed” before they are given a chance to grow. “My jaw was just on the floor when we’re talking about this kind of stuff, because she’s so young,” Price says.

The West High School sophomore started bringing canvas, paints, charcoals, friendship bracelets, and other art supplies to people living under the bridge near the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission last fall. She had been going to KARM with a church group since middle school to talk with the women there about God, but she saw them really blossom when she started bringing crafts, games, and nail polish along.

“It was like an escape,” she says. “They weren’t dealing with their struggles when they picked up a paint brush.” This inspired her to bring more supplies and share these opportunities on Sunday afternoons with the homeless in a parking lot near the mission. “Plenty of people come there with food, and that’s awesome,” she says. “They’re taking care of the physical needs. But no one is really taking care of their mental needs.”

Koontz says she was amazed by how enthusiastic homeless men were when she approached them with the chance to wield a paint brush. “One man writes poetry and paints these gorgeous landscapes,” she says. Another enjoys cartooning. “I’m continually surprised by the talent I see in these people. To see this kind of emotional outpouring – I was really shocked by it.”

A few friends from school joined her and have taken up the regular work of providing artistic opportunities to the homeless. Seeing the difference it made inspired Koontz to branch out. She is in the process of registering “The Garden Project” as a 501(c)3 non-profit and already has a board (including Price). Her goal over the next two years is to raise money for a small art bus which she can outfit with supplies like clay, paints and yoga mats. Then she can drive art opportunities directly to people of all ages. In particular, she hopes to establish a relationship this fall with an after-school program for elementary school students so she can give at-risk children a chance to try art projects.

Koontz wants to shift her focus to include children because she recognizes that many of the factors that lead to homelessness start early. “I want to promote self-expression in the younger generation, starts those habits youth… and increase mental fitness through various forms of art.”

Price has been able to see how confidence and mental wellness issues start in elementary school and translate into high school. Price is a former elementary school teacher who is now a guidance counselor through the Boys and Girls Club at West High, where she guides students toward secondary education.

A friend of Koontz’s family, Price remembers as many as four years ago seeing Koontz’s list of ideas and goals on the back of the girl’s bedroom door – including the concept of The Garden Project. Price says she is interested in starting a non-profit related to cancer herself, and has been inspired and learned from the younger girl.

Koontz and her family believe in the effort enough to pay for the art supplies out of pocket and with the help of a few donations from friends. In the long run, Koontz says, she’d like to set up a show of participants’ art, perhaps through the Dogwood Arts Festival. “I really want to make it something these people take pride in, because self-confidence is really a big part of it,” she says.

She learned that herself through art classes at Halls Middle School and now West High. “I do credit my art teachers Ms. Ayers and Ms. Adams with helping me express myself and allow myself to flow out of any media they put in front of me,” Koontz says. “I love artistic expression and wanted to share that experience with others.”

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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