Downtown Aurora Visual Arts students listen to First Lady Michelle Obama Nov. 10 at the center near Florence Street and East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. Representatives from DAVA received a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. The award was in recognition of the local non-profit’s Job Training Program, which is an after-school program for middle schoolers that focuses on developing art, computer and life skills. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Blustery winter winds outside did little to chill the electric atmosphere within the Downtown Aurora Visual Arts complex Nov. 10 where DAVA students and mentors had gathered to celebrate a momentous occasion for the north Aurora institution.

A palpable buzz floated among the multicolored streamers hanging from the rafters of the DAVA complex on Florence Street as the crowd jabbered excitedly and intently watched the video being projected in the front of the room.

“And Downtown Aurora-” the rest of the White House official’s phrase was inaudible as a cacophony of cheers and applause erupted, echoing off the concrete walls throughout the cavernous building.

The group of nearly 50 students, teachers and mentors was riotous as they watched representatives from their humble Aurora outfit stride across a stage in the East Wing of the White House and accept an award from first lady Michelle Obama.

“It’s been absolutely incredible,” Susan Jenson, executive director of DAVA, said.

Jenson was one of the DAVA representatives in Washington accepting a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award on behalf of the Aurora organization.

“It is an incredible honor to be recognized for this award, and we are proud to bring it home to our community,” Jenson said in a statement. “This recognition validates our efforts over the last 20-plus years to impact the economic vitality of Aurora by engaging youth in the arts and opening their eyes to a future of possibilities.”

Selected from a group of over 350 nominations and 50 finalists, DAVA was one of just 12 youth development programs in the country to be honored for the annual award. On top of being invited to attend the ceremony Nov. 11 in Washington D.C., DAVA will also receive a $10,000 grant as well as communications and capacity-building support from the President’s committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

The award was in recognition of the local nonprofit’s Job Training Program, which is an after-school program for middle schoolers that focuses on developing art, computer and life skills.

“The Job Training Program goes a long way toward developing problem solvers, responsibility and team work,” Jenson said in September.

Boris Cochajil, an Aurora eighth grader and job-training participant, accompanied Jenson to the White House to accept the award on behalf of all job trainees. Cochajil has been involved in various DAVA programs for over five years, including last summer when he helped to write, direct and produce a short film with help from the Colorado Film School for the program’s “Artbots” exhibit.

“DAVA is really important to me because it lets me express who I am,” said Cochajil. “Sometimes in school, teachers underestimate middle schoolers, but at DAVA they welcome you and say, ‘even though you may come from somewhere we don’t know, we’re going to treat you like family and we’re going to learn about you.’”

For more than 20 years, DAVA has offered free, after-school and summer programs to Aurora youths between the ages of 3 and 17 years old just like Cochajil. Through teaching children about art and technology in an area of the city notorious for crime, the facility off of East Colfax has become a safe haven for hundreds of students through the years.   

“I would say I’m pretty proud to be in a place like (DAVA),” said Hiram Saucedo, a 15-year-old job trainee and three-year DAVA veteran. “Around here there’s the ghetto, people doing drugs and violence — I’m pretty sure this place saved me from all that.”

Stories about all of the 12 of the youth art programs honored at the White House reaffirmed Saucedo’s thoughts about the importance of after-school programing and having an outlet for expression.

“You help them grow emotionally and socially,” said Michelle Obama in her address to the White House crowd of youth program organizers. “You give kids a spring in their step when they get out of bed each morning. You give them something to look forward to after each school day.”

Jenson commended Michelle Obama’s for her efforts in supporting youth arts.

“The first lady is gracious and just lovely,” she said. “She’s so supportive of art as a pathway to education and careers, and for that we’re so grateful.”

Cochajil echoed Jenson’s thoughts on the first lady and said he will never forget speaking to her onstage.

“She talked to me about how the plane ride was, and I was doing,” he said. “I told her I was she sleepy and she told me to get some sleep, then everybody in the audience started cracking up.”