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Teen group creates art, builds community

“I got that strive, now. Feel me?” he said with a smile.

Rakeem Gray is a different person now than he was a year ago. As a junior at Johnson High School, a Nashville alternative school for students with behavioral issues, the 18-year-old limited himself with his own apathy. He didn’t respect schoolwork or other students, and he spent most of his classes doodling. It became clear he wasn’t going to graduate.

That’s when he got to know Mike Kavanaugh, founder and project manager of Promoting Artistic Strengths Through Logic. As a non-profit, PASTL organizes creative, work-based projects to foster positive communities and employable skills among Nashville kids.

Kavanaugh recognized Gray’s passion for drawing and asked him to help paint on a graffiti project with PASTL.

“So I got out there,” Gray said. “I stayed with it since the first day I started.”

Now a senior at Johnson, Gray is a student leader of PASTL. He helps organize projects, gets feedback from younger team members and has even joined his school art club. He got involved to develop his creativity, but PASTL’s real value goes beyond that, Kavanaugh said.

“About 75 percent of the projects we’ve done to date involve painting,” Kavanaugh said. “But art is involved at some level in all of the projects. It’s how we apply our skills. Even if it’s cutting grass, there’s an art to doing it right.”

The students that come through Kavanaugh’s program usually have different reasons that bring them there. Some teens may have court-ordered community service to do. Some might be building their resumes and career skills for the future. Some just like to hang out. Whatever their reason, students can find opportunities to serve in an uplifting environment while discussing skills like punctuality, resourcefulness, cooperation and budgeting.

“I think that’s more beneficial than just having them do menial tasks,” Kavanaugh said.

PASTL tries to maximize an individual’s growth by taking a personal approach to each student. After assessing his or her needs, strengths and struggles, Kavanaugh forms an individualized support plan.

“For instance, Rakeem is looking for a job, so for the past year, any opportunity that comes up – cutting yards, cleaning for a neighbor – he’ll do it to build his resume,” Kavanaugh said.

Now, if Gray gets stressed in school, he sketches instead of getting frustrated.

“He has a lot of stressors like a lot of the kids that go to Johnson do,” said Kavanaugh. “But now he’s one of the most involved kids in class. I can’t say what it’s attributed to, but I see him with a different vigor for life. Instead of laying back, waiting for things to happen, I see him taking his life into his own hands.”

Now, Gray is focusing on his upcoming art show. He hopes to become an aircraft engineer after graduating so he can have money to donate to Kavanaugh’s efforts at PASTL.

“If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be bored, doing nothing, just in the hood with some friends,” he said. “Mike, he made me see a whole different side, like there’s something out there. Like I can do something with my art, put it up, let people see. Mike did that. We did it.”

“You did, man,” said Kavanaugh. “You did that.”

Get involved: PASTL has reached more than 400 kids in the past year through creative projects around Nashville. To get involved or hear about upcoming projects e-mail Mike at To donate, visit and click “Donate.”

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