Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”
Edition 11— Jamilyah Waldron
A Complete Game Changer
Jamilyah Waldron joined Artists For Humanity when she was a freshman in high school — around 2003, she thinks, but can’t quite remember. She stayed with the organization into college, going from an assistant mentor to a full-on mentor in the painting studio. Today, she works as a registered nurse in an emergency room, where she says she routinely uses the skills and philosophies she learned during her time at AFH. Waldron lives in Scituate, Rhode Island with her husband Nathan, another AFH alumnus, and their two-year-old child.
Waldron learned about AFH through a friend when she was a freshman in high school. Her very first day, she met Rob Gibbs, Co-Founder and Director of the Painting Studio. She showed him her art, and he responded, “That’s cool, but we’re going to teach you a lot more.” Prior to AFH, Waldron had enjoyed drawing characters she saw on TV, such as Spongebob, but had never given the medium a ton of thought. She was nervous that first day, “because I was bringing my art to a place where everyone was an artist.”
But AFH quickly became a second home for her. She spent hours in the Painting Studio with her friends, taking breaks to buy snacks and meals, and then working and chatting well into the night.
“I always felt welcome there. I went from school to AFH to home, and that was my life, even sometimes on weekends,” Waldron explained.
However, during her second year at AFH, she made the decision to temporarily leave the organization. She was failing two classes and wanted to get her grades back up. Her mentors at AFH encouraged her to take the time off. Waldron spent every day after school working on history and physics. After her grades improved, she returned to AFH.
Waldron had a tight circle of friends who were instrumental to her time in the program. She said, “We were just the crew. And we loved being at AFH. We were deeply involved with AFH and AFH was deeply involved with us.”
Waldron’s husband, Nathan, was in that group of friends and was also one of her classmates in high school. Waldron explained that according to Nathan, she brought him to AFH for the first time because she knew he was interested in art — however, she laughed, she has no memory of this.
Many of Waldron’s most vivid memories of AFH are of the opportunities the organization gave her. She remembers a large-scale project on a 6-foot by 6-foot canvas that she and a group of friends painted with clouds, which was displayed at the Boston Convention Center. Seeing her and her friends work on “such a large scale for such a large crowd” was a pivotal experience.
“Being [at AFH] was a complete game changer for me and my life,” she said.
Waldron also clearly remembers other moments of growth, such as selling art at AFH’s Greatest Party on Earth (the organization’s largest annual fundraising event) or live painting at other events that AFH was hosting. She said, “The exposure itself was very enriching. If you seized every chance, you really got to push yourself.” She added that much of the growth was self-directed: “No one forced you to do anything. But I always wanted to do more, succeed more, be more. They saw that, and they were like okay, here’s more.”
Along the way, she developed real rapport with mentors such as Gibbs. She laughs and remembers, “I remember going to cash our checks, going to the Teriyaki House, I’d get my popcorn shrimp, and I’d bring it back and go ‘Rob, you want some popcorn shrimp? And he’d get all grossed out, and say, ‘How you eating that?’ We had the Arizona teas, and he was like, ‘that’s disgusting, how you drinking that?’”
But the work of the mentors went far beyond joking around and offering advice on art. “It wasn’t just like hey, I’m your mentor for a few hours. They were like, you need a haircut? I got you. You need some food? Let’s go get some food. You need a ride home? I’ll take you home. Oh, it’s your birthday? Here you go, happy birthday. And that’s what they did for me, all the time,” she said.
Ultimately, the greatest lesson Waldron learned at AFH, she says, was to invest in the lives of others — something she gleaned from her mentors. “They were just involved in every way. And they never asked for anything in return,” she remembered.
Waldron went on to attend college at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, but returned to AFH in the summers to work as a mentor in the Painting Studio. “It brought on its own challenge, being responsible for your own group of kids. You have to foster them how you were fostered, in a free and open manner,” she reflected.
Waldron worked to be open to her students’ ideas. “Art comes from people’s own experiences. So you can’t just come in and overpower that. Being aware of that and being sensitive to that really requires you to rewire yourself,” she said.
Waldron no longer works as an artist, but she says the lessons of AFH made a lasting impact on her. “I didn’t turn out to be an artist, but in my life as a registered nurse, I’m helping people all the time.” She explained, “I think it’s ingrained in me to try to be compassionate and kind to anyone who walks in my door. Because at AFH, anyone could come in and feel welcome.”
This compassion is crucial to her work as a nurse. “We have people coming from everywhere — homeless people, intoxicated people, people cussing you and up and down. Just because someone is overly drunk doesn’t mean you dismiss them. Just because someone doesn’t seem ill doesn’t mean you dismiss them,” she said.
Waldron emphasized that it was the individuals at AFH who shaped her into the person she is today. “I am who I am now because they helped me to get here. I will always give them that credit,” she said. And she stays in touch with her AFH family: “Every time I get a chance to come to Boston, I’m like ‘yo, Rob, SWAT [Talbot], you guys at AFH?’ and I stop through.”
Written by Lena Novins-Montague.