West Side school is artistic safe haven for kids

February 22, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Stanley and Antoinette Ratliff keep watchful eyes over this drumline, like any proud parents would.

"Stanley, that's my second father," said 14-year-old DeShawn knight. "He does everything like a father. He has our back. He gives me food and gives me clothes."

The Ratliffs are the founders of the Celestial Ministries School of Fine Arts in the North Lawndale community. It started in 2002 and is open to all children. It offers lessons in music theory, mentoring and one-on-one music teaching, plus academic support.

The couple came up with the idea after then-Governor Edgar granted clemency to Stanley on a drug-related charge. He served 2 1/2 years of a 9 1/2 year prison sentence. Seeing what their then-7-year-old son went through while his dad was away motivated the Ratliffs to support other children with incarcerated parents.

"When I got out, me and my wife, we started doing Angel Tree, but that was just once a year and we wanted to be involved with the kids more than just during Christmas time. So we started the program so we could be involved with the kids' lives till their parents get out," said Stanley Ratliff.

Teshauna Edwards' father was recently released, but he had been incarcerated for most of her life. She joined the program four years ago and is now in college. She says the support she has received from the program helped her cope.

"There have been many times where I've called either Stanley or Shawn and just kind of reached out and said well, 'This is going on, what should I do?' And Stanley's like, 'He's still your father, talk to him.' Whatever you can do build a relationship," said 19-year-old Edwards.

For the Ratliffs, the goal is not only to help these children cope, but also to help them flourish.

"I see a difference when they're here continuously. We don't give up on them. Our doors are always open. And we don't want them to give up on us. But most importantly, we don't want them to give up on the parent that's away," said Antoinette Ratliff.

The school of fine arts currently holds classes at the Lawndale Community Church. The organizers recently purchased a building that was on the city's demolition list so the school can have a place to call home. They are now trying to raise $70,000 to rehab the facility.

For more information on the school of fine arts go to www.celestialmin.org.

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