I met Theresa Emmett a couple years ago when she brought teens from Fouryouth Productions on a Sunday hike to learn nature photography from the professional photographers who are members of our weekly hiking crew. I knew peripherally about the work that Emmett was doing teaching photography, science, and culinary skills to underprivileged students, after-school in Wilmington, but I had no idea what to expect from the outing. Likewise, some of the youth had their own uncertainties about the experience because they had never hiked in nature before–even though our hike was to take place at Alapocas Run State Park, less than three miles from where they attended school.
While the students were exploring the landscape and receiving tutorials, I talked to Emmet and learned that Fouryouth had just received grant money to lease space next to Colorworks on Superfine Lane to further expand their program. Emmett talked about the work she, her husband Raphael Dahan, and a battery of volunteers were doing to paint the space and install a kitchen and studio. I was intrigued. Emmett is a soft-spoken woman who is often dwarfed by the kids she mentors, but when she talked about the program expansion, she seemed to grow in stature in proportion to the project she was describing.
Two years later, I had another opportunity to talk with Emmett and tour the beautifully remodeled studio headquarters of Fouryouth Productions to find out how the program had grown and what (even grander) visions Emmett had for the future.
But let’s back up a little. How did Fouryouth Productions come about? The origins of the program began six years ago when Emmett and her friend, science teacher Janae Dupree, had an idea to inspire students in Thomas Edison Charter School’s after-school program. Emmett had noticed that some of the students she talked to had very limited ideas about their futures. Many times, she would ask what they wanted to be when they grew up and the job title often had the word “assistant” in it. As in dental assistant or administrative assistant. They weren’t bad jobs, but with all of the available jobs out there, the choices seemed to lack imagination and were often limited in scope. Emmett wanted to create a program that would expose students to job fields they may never have considered and give them the confidence to reach beyond a limiting mindset. She also wanted to rid them of pre-conceived notions about seemingly upper-tier jobs–engineering, for instance. Students associated that field with coding or robotics. They had no idea that the University of Delaware offered forty-four different degrees including majors in environmental, biomedical, and construction engineering. To foster expansive thinking, Emmett and Dupree came up with an idea to teach the somewhat intimidating subject of science in tandem with the more approachable discipline of photography. They recruited teachers and speakers from industry, rather than academia, so kids could see the application of science and art in real life situations. The afterschool component of Fouryouth was born.
Six years later, Fouryouth Productions reaches over 500 K-12 students a year with its after-school, Saturday, and summer programs. Beyond the walls of school and studio, the Fouryouth students have been gaining experience and confidence as event photographers, particularly for non-profits. This direct experience with the public teaches students to engage with the people by learning to read facial cues, interact in professional settings, and network with people in business. The off-campus opportunities have also let youth see the city of Wilmington with love and new appreciation. Whereas before, many students couldn’t wait to leave the area, they now want to stay and become more involved in the community in which they live. One way they do this is by giving back to the Fouryouth organization. Some of its earliest participants, now in high school, have capitalized on their knowledge to come full circle as teachers in the after-school program. And, just this past school year, Fouryouth sent its first student off to college with a scholarship funded by the sale of student photography.
I asked Emmett to show me around the Fouryouth workspace/studio so I could see the heart of the operation. It’s an impressive space and beautifully appointed with high ceilings; accent walls; framed student artwork; bright, contemporary furnishings; and a loft. The in-house professional photography studio features more professional-grade photography equipment than I ever have seen in one place outside a photography store. In addition, the Fouryouth headquarters boasts gallery space, a kitchen, computer banks with huge monitors for post-production work, and a classroom. I secretly wanted to move in. Do you think anyone would notice a writer sleeping in the loft?
As I marveled at the space, I asked Emmett if she imagined this kind of growth when she started the program six short years ago. She didn’t try to hide the fact that she wasn’t really surprised by it all. Then I remembered, Theresa Emmett doesn’t deal in the silly limitations people impose on themselves; she smashes them. The fact is that the current headquarters is a layover, a stopping point to refuel while she channels her energy into the next phase of Fouryouth Productions. First and foremost, Emmett intends that Fouryouth become a self-sustainable non-profit, so that the program doesn’t have to rely on grants and donations to continue services. Currently they are about 60% self-sustaining but hope to increase that number by providing services such as event photography, the lease and curation of art displays for area businesses, and rentals of the photography studio and Fouryouth headquarters for corporate and social events. And too, Emmett would like to see Fouryouth housed in a location they own and aren’t just renting.
As for the program itself, Emmett has plans to take students beyond Wilmington to places like Alaska and Iceland so they can learn about the effects of climate change and have experiences photographing landscape and wildlife. The University of Fairbanks has agreed to partner with Fouryouth. Emmett envisions that the students will serve as environmental stewards, giving daily live reports back to schools in Wilmington, thus extending the reach of the educational impact beyond just those students who are on the trip. The proposed cost of such a trip for the students? Fifty hours of service upon returning to Wilmington.
Want to see the work of Fouryouth students and learn about this non-profit firsthand? Delaware Center for Horticulture will be sponsoring an exhibit of Fouryouth student work during the Art Loop, January 10, 2020 from 5-9 PM at 1810 N Dupont Street. The proceeds from the sale of student artwork goes toward college scholarships for Fouryouth participants. Want to get involved? Fouryouth is always looking for qualified teachers from the professional world to inform students through classroom participation and as guest speakers. Or consider hiring Fouryouth Productions to photograph your next event. For more information on these and other ways to get involved with Fouryouth Productions check out their website. All you have to lose are your limitations.
Fouryouth is participating in Delaware’s Giving Day: Do More 24 Delaware on March 5th and 6th, an initiative from United Way of Delaware and Spur Impact, designed to INspire residents of the First State to get INvolved with their local nonprofits! Like what you read here? Consider supporting Fouryouth during this 24-hour giving period.
Other participating organizations are IN the Spotlight over on our blog! Get the full list here.