Brands We Love: Van Go

VJ's Favorites

I want you to consider these factors.

  • Mental health diagnosis
  • Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  • Pregnant
  • Parenting
  • Living in foster care
  • Food insecurity
  • Unhoused

And now, picture yourself or your child in the teenage or young-adult years, carrying one or more of these experiences. How would you be approaching school and work, or both? Just one item from this list can seriously impact a young person’s self-confidence, time and focus to study and/or work, and ability to project into and plan for the future.

Moving forward in the face of these challenges is a Herculean task. But, as in many difficult life circumstances, personalized help can go a long way. And I think once you finish reading this Brands We Love profile, you’ll wish every community had this kind of organization.

Born in 1997 and continuously operating since in Lawrence, Kansas, Van Go, Inc. is a nationally recognized, arts-based employment program for 14-24 year-old teens and young adults with identified barriers (such as those listed above). Although it began as Van Go Mobile Arts, a summertime arts outreach program, Van Go is now a year-round hub of activity. In addition to arts-based employment, the organization provides youth with social-service supports and job readiness and leadership training.

Put it all together in a safe, supportive, kind, respectful environment where youth feel seen, heard and valued, and the results are impressive.

Van Go has provided critical support to hundreds of young people since its inception. In recent history and in 2023, the organization employs 65-100 youth per year, with some individuals doing repeat sessions or returning in a leadership position. Program participants receive holistic support for moving through and moving on from challenging times, and art is the vehicle for all of it.

Benchmark provides Van Go youth with a unique opportunity to leverage their artistic skills and learn important skills for their future in the workplace. Artists work closely with clients to understand their goals and vision for the bench they commissioned, provide a plan, receive and incorporate feedback, and translate the entire process into a final product. While the more than 400 benches youth have created are primarily in Lawrence, a handful exist outside of Kansas. Request a reservation for its summer Benchmark program. 

Murals created by Van Go youth can be found throughout Lawrence and surrounding Douglas County. Recently completed works are at the Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ and the Baker University Wetlands and Discovery Center; however, the full range is available for viewing in an online gallery.

Adornment is Van Go’s annual holiday art show and sale featuring goods created by Apprentice Artists. Youth learn a variety of media and techniques—screen printing, blacksmithing, fused glass, painting, leatherwork, photography—then create artwork for sale. 

The art is really cool. That’s a stand-alone fact. But, frankly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the great work that Van Go is doing. The organization flexes and changes to meet youth where they are. Services such as Go Healthy, Pre-Employment Prep Program, and Van Go & Co. grew organically to meet point-in-time needs for youth in the program, then became permanent pillars of the mission.

And Van Go’s everyday norms create a shared culture of accountability and growth. 

  • Staff and Apprentice Artists normalize mental health. Over the years, mental health diagnoses have become more common among the identified barriers that qualify youth for Van Go programs. Youth start their shifts by sharing, on a scale of 1-10, their stress-ometer level for the day. This public display destigmatizes mental health ups and downs, creates group cohesion, and gives Van Go staff social workers cues for checking in with people that day or week and may kick off crisis stabilization support as needed.
  • Youth turn in their cell phones at the beginning of each work day. Doing so, youth participants learn that life exists beyond and without their phones. In addition to a demonstrable mental-health benefit, this practice also instills in youth the importance of being present with others in the workplace. 
  • Apprentice Artists are active participants in operations. Youth who have completed multiple sessions are able to advance into leadership positions. They provide formal and informal feedback; they present at board meetings; they’re involved in focus groups and event planning and logistics.
  • Program grads come back. Once a part of the Van Go family, always a part. Graduates of the program often return to catch up with mentors; celebrate a success; to get guidance on refreshing their resume or preparing for an interview; or to access help with a social-work need.

The art, the job-readiness training, the social and emotional support … these all work in concert to help youth feel a great sense of pride and personal agency at work, and to take those with them wherever they go next. I know Van Go has positively transformed hundreds of lives directly, and likely thousands more indirectly, and I commend them on their continued success and growth. Learn more about the organization or shop online today.