ArtVan: A Community-Based Non-profit in the Time of COVID-19


ArtVan is a nonprofit based in Maine that provides local youth with art therapy. Jamie Silvestri founded the organization in 2004. Silvestri is currently the Executive Director and Art Therapist for the program. Since then, the ArtVan organization has grown, and the mobile art facility has become a staple for Maine’s youth, particularly in Lewiston, Auburn, and Bath.

The Bates Student had the opportunity to speak to Silvestri and Shannon Els, the director of development and communications. The two shared about the challenges of running a nonprofit that is based on social connection during a pandemic.

They also spoke about how the program has come to work with the Bates community. Bates students have been working with ArtVan at the Lewiston Public Library for many years. Some students chose to volunteer, while others participated in internships with the organization. 

Silvestri noted, “We’ve had about three students who have used ArtVan as a senior thesis venue to do a particular study.” ArtVan has also worked with volunteers and fellows from Bowdoin College, the University of Southern Maine, and more.

Currently, Casey Kelley ‘21, an environmental studies major, is a community outreach fellow at the Harward Center for Community Engagement. She works with arts programs via the Harward Center, including ArtVan. Her primary role is to coordinate volunteers at Bates. She also develops social media content for the organization.

Kelley spoke about her work before the pandemic: “Everyone in there was treated exactly the same … Everyone got to go and sit down and do an art project. Even though I was a volunteer, I still got to do the project and engage with kids. Kids would see you in a different light than a superior.” She noted that she found the work rewarding even though she does not see herself as a great artist. She feels that even during the pandemic, it has been great that ArtVan shows up consistently. 

Work at ArtVan has changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. A lot of the work has gone virtual. Els spoke about how she has been managing these changes. “It has been weekly [virtual] check-ins and sharing content back and forth … I’m working with Casey and another student who is a Bowdoin fellow. Between the two of them, it’s been great.” At the time that The Student interviewed ArtVan, both Silvestri and Els indicated that they felt that they had a sound system in place.

When the pandemic sent the country into lockdown, the team at ArtVan had to reimagine how to continue their work quickly. ArtVan decided to start handing out “art bags” at the Lewiston Public Library. These bags contain materials that students can use to create art. One of the recent bags that was distributed was based on lightness and darkness. According to Silvestri, students at Bates often assemble the materials to be placed in the bags. About 125 bags are being distributed twice each month.

The team at ArtVan does not provide particular instructions on how to use the materials. The hope is that students will engage with the materials as they please. Silvestri said, “It’s not like there are three circles in the bag, and you create a snowman. It’s a lot more open for exploration.” The Bates fellows get together to create video demonstrations of how to use the materials, but they leave room for creativity. ArtVan has heard from families that the art bags have helped give young students something to do throughout the pandemic.

Overall, ArtVan is trying to keep functioning to the best of its ability — like many other nonprofit organizations — during these uncertain times. Silvestri concluded, “What’s most important to us, regardless of the bigger picture, is that people see the van. There is the consistency of showing up. We are the only program that has been showing up in the neighborhood since March … At least we are solid in showing up. I feel that that is a really important thing.”


Credit for photos: Jamie Silvestri/Courtesy Photo

*Both pics were provided by Jamie Silvestri, the founder of ArtVan. They were provided by families who received “art bags” during the pandemic.