It all began with three passions: art, children and helping people. For Jennie, the Founder and CEO of drawchange, the arts helped her make sense of so much as a child. She had no choice but to grant that gift to the impoverished children of the world.
"Art was my outlet as a child. It helped me cope with life. I want to show children that they can also use art as a way to deal with their current circumstances. Art is empowering. It shows you first-hand that you can achieve anything you can imagine. It helps you escape to anywhere you want to go. It’s difficult to soar above your current circumstances if you can’t even imagine them!"
As a child, I sought refuge in art. As a first generation American living in the inner city, art was my outlet—a way to cope with life’s stresses. My parents immigrated to the United States from Uruguay in the late 70s. As a child of immigrants, I had as much urgency to blend in as to tightly cling to my heritage. It was a challenge to learn to juggle the different cultural pressures. I was forced to assimilate. Art gave me the space and capacity to process and learn to make sense of the dichotomy I was living in. My goal, as founder and CEO of drawchange, is to provide vulnerable children with the same opportunities to be inspired and transformed. I want to empower children to channel their creativity to manage their current circumstances, to show them they can attain anything imaginable, and to allow them to escape to anywhere they want to go. It’s difficult to soar above your current circumstances if you can’t even imagine life’s endless possibilities!
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an artist, having more than fifty coloring books before I reached Kindergarten. I was always coloring, and so fortunate that my parents encouraged it. One of my favorite childhood memories was going to the store with my grandma to buy art supplies.
I won my first medal for my artwork when I was in third grade, for an oil pastel painting of a bird submitted to the city art exhibit. I remember falling in love with the whole creative process—from selecting the subject matter to the coaching I received from my instructor on using professional oil pastels. I’ll never forget the feeling of knowing that I made my parents and grandma proud.
In the fifth grade, I was one of only two students in my class selected to attend an advanced art class a few times a week, and I was fortunate enough to be able to continue in the class from fifth to eighth grade. My participation in this class helped me apply for the Visual and Performing Arts High School Program—which allowed students the opportunity to attend high school for a half-day and take college art courses for the remainder of the day. Only three of us were selected from the 1000-student freshman class. It was an honor to participate in this innovative program and an amazing experience that laid the foundation for my career as an artist.
During my high school years, I experienced some traumatic events. Being able to express myself artistically helped me through these trying times. It was my outlet, a coping mechanism to deal with my pain. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my senior thesis clearly mirrored my inner turmoil. I spent countless hours at local cemeteries in the inner city of Jersey City, NJ—drawing, painting, sculpting, and collaging. My art did not reflect the grim and morbid imagery that most people imagine when thinking about cemeteries. In contrast, the scenes in front of me were extremely vivid, with contrasting colors. To me, they were beautiful, an escape from my painful reality at the time. Aside from acrylic paint and mixed media, I used a lot of oil pastels. I loved oil pastels because the colors don’t typically mix. This allows for the clear juxtaposition of color, the brightest possible outcome.
My cemetery artwork landed me a full scholarship at the prestigious Maryland Institute, College of Art. This was my chance to leave my troubles behind and start anew. While I was ready to leave the inner city angst, I knew that I would miss my parents and Latino culture terribly. Through their journey and sacrifices, they taught me to pursue my dreams and never stay where you are comfortable. I knew that I had to take the chance. This was my only out, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would set me up for a successful career as a painter.
I enrolled as a General Fine Arts (GFA) major with a focus in [acrylic] painting and slowly began focusing on web/interactive/multimedia design, while continuing to pursue my GFA degree. I graduated in 2000 with my GFA degree and was immediately given a job at a fortune 500 advertising agency in Atlanta, GA.
I spent the next six years creating high-end websites, videos, and animation for high-profile clients. I was well compensated and living a fulfilling life—one that I had longed for during those many teenage years in the cemeteries. After six years in this position, the economy declined and clients began holding back funds. I wasn’t being challenged and lost my enthusiasm for my job. It was at that point that I started contemplating my true life passions. After two years of reflection, I realized what drives me the most: art, children, and helping others.
In March of 2008, I decided to volunteer for an international abroad organization and completely immerse myself in creating art with children. They placed me in Cartago, Costa Rica and my assignment was to paint three murals in three weeks with the school children.
It was a daunting task but one I quickly realized was a life-changing event for me. After seeing the immediate impact the project made in the children’s lives, I knew my destiny of helping children with art awaited me. Painting the murals with the children provided a vessel for them to express their creativity, giving them hope for the future. Seeing how their perspectives were easily changed in the process, motivated me upon my return to try and extend the same opportunity to the children back home as well as abroad. I am honored to know the murals are still inspiring the children to continue with their education. I returned from Costa Rica with a mission and a goal of world peace in mind.
I had to make a choice and decided to jump in headfirst. I had no doubt in my mind that if I followed my passions, I would not fail. It took me a full year to develop the organization, from branding to marketing and advertising. I developed all of this without telling anyone. I didn’t want to be discouraged by negative feedback, knowing people would be concerned—especially after so many years with a consistent income. For a full year, I had two full-time jobs: the ad agency and what we know today as drawchange. I knew that I couldn’t continue to do both for much longer, but I wasn’t making any income from drawchange. Nearly a year later, that decision was made for me. Just two months short of my ten-year anniversary at the ad agency, my position was eliminated and I was let go. While disappointing at the time, this turned out to be a tremendous blessing.
I decided not to pursue another position in corporate America and continue to follow my passions. I still had no doubt in my mind that growing drawchange was the right course of action for me, both professionally and personally. Art has helped me in so many ways, how could I not afford the same opportunity to as many children as possible?
While building this organization has been the biggest challenge of my life, it has also been the most rewarding. We’ve empowered over 14,000 children to date. Thousands of children now know that they can achieve their dreams, that they can emerge from whatever circumstance they’re in. I’m so proud of how far we have come and am forever indebted to all those who have supported me and drawchange throughout the years.
My parents are still supporting my endeavors and trust the process. My parents and grandma constantly assures me that I’m on the right track and I am incredibly grateful.
In operation since 2009, our programs are still going strong! We still need as much ongoing support as possible as we aim for sustainability. We look forward to more and more success in the years to come.
Jennie — pronounced “Jeenie” :)
Thanks for reading!