(This article was published in the Windsor Star on March 1, 2016)

When Lance Bucknor stepped hesitantly through the front door of Toronto’s SKETCH arts studio he hadn’t finished high school and was living in a shelter. At 22, he was hoping the arts program for homeless youth would offer a creative outlet to vent his angst. What he found was an opportunity and the tools to turn this life around.

One year later, Bucknor is teaching creative writing workshops at SKETCH and making connections with schools and community centres.

Through SKETCH and similar programs, we’ve seen that art is a gateway to everything a troubled young person needs, from gaining life skills and a much-needed sense of community, to finding mentorship and forging networks needed to find a job or start a business.

Most importantly, art is what brings marginalized, hard-to-reach youth through the door in the first place.

The teen years and 20s are a precarious life stage when identity and direction are in flux, says SKETCH staffer Hayley Hoskins. Some 30,000 young Canadians, ages 16 to 24, are homeless at any given time.

If you’re young and also dealing with abuse, addiction, a broken family or mental illness, finding your way istough.

Art is an accessible way to confront those seemingly impossible challenges. Through painting, music or dance, young people can express themselves in ways they may never do on a couch with a counsellor.

That was the premise behind SKETCH, founded by local theatre actor Phyllis Novak, 20 years ago in a storefront in downtown Toronto. It’s now housed in an abandoned elementary school, with studios for visual and performing arts.

Courses include mentoring in business skills and culinary arts. There’s a recording studio funded by Canadian music legend, Gary Slaight, regular exhibits and vending opportunities, and youth have the opportunity to connect with local artistic mentors like Kevin Drew from the famed indie rock band Broken Social Scene.

The program welcomes 850 marginalized young people a year, ages 16 to 29, from anywhere in Canada, on a drop-in basis or in its 10-week workshops.

Other projects also use art as empowerment for youth living on the margins. Creative Life mentors vulnerable young people in East Vancouver through its youth-led art shows, drop-in sessions and meals.

SKETCH’s Hoskins cites a study of homeless youth by art therapy professor Janice Hoshino from Seattle’s Antioch University. Hoshino says the creative process of exploring past trials and future options through art, builds stronger coping skills, self-control and problem-solving skills.

University of Oregon emeritus education professor, Robert Sylwester, has long linked creativity to higher levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that boosts self-confidence while curbing impulsivity.

Success stories out of SKETCH abound. One young man came for the recording studio but discovered a passion for food while volunteering in the kitchen. Now he’s a full-time cook.

In addition to giving youth a healthy dose of empowerment, SKETCH refers more than 200 young people a year, to local housing, career and mental-health services. For these individuals, art truly is a door to start a better future.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity Free The Children, the social enterprise Me to We and the youth empowerment movement We Day. We.org