Happen, Inc. uses art to help kids discover themselves

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CINCINNATI — Like a lot of teenagers, Echo Lyons Siler couldn’t wait to start making her own money. As a creative kid, she wanted the independence and freedom of having a job so she could afford to do while doing what she wanted to do.  What You Need To Know […]

CINCINNATI — Like a lot of teenagers, Echo Lyons Siler couldn’t wait to start making her own money. As a creative kid, she wanted the independence and freedom of having a job so she could afford to do while doing what she wanted to do. 


What You Need To Know

  • Happen, Inc. provides creative art and life experiences to children of all ages
  • Founded in 1999, the nonprofit offers open studio space, a variety of programs and several off-site experiences every year
  • A key tenet of Happen, Inc. lets kids work alongside their parent or guardian to help them learn together and become closer
  • Now 23 years old, many former Happen kids return to introduce their own children to the program

Luckily for her, Echo lives in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood, home to Happen, Inc., which for more than two decades has provided young people from across the region with opportunities to explore their artistic side.

Described as a “creativity center,” Happen hosts a variety of free, year-round projects for kids of all ages. Most programming is for younger children, ages 6 to 12, and their parents. But it also offers programs for the older kids through its Teen Hall initiative. 

One of those programs is Breadwinners, basically a T-shirt company run entirely by Happen’s teens.

Echo’s mother, Molly, a friend of Happen’s founder, Tommy Rueff, told her she could sign up for Breadwinners when she turned 13.

That’s exactly what she did.

Echo Lyons Siler (seated) with a group at Happen, Inc. (Photo courtesy of Echo Lyons Siler)

Echo Lyons Siler (seated) with a group at Happen, Inc. (Photo courtesy of Echo Lyons Siler)

Now 15, Echo works with a group of teens, who collaborate with a professional designer to create concepts for the shirts. They then screen print the items and sell them at Happen’s studio, as well as special events and several retail stores in Cincinnati.

Most of the kids in Breadwinners come from moderate- to low-income households.

After covering the overhead costs, all proceeds go back to the teens in the program. Echo’s working 16 or 17 hours a week while going to school at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College through its College Credit Plus program.

“We’re learning really helpful skills—from design to how to run a small business,” Echo said. “It means a lot for kids to be creative while also making some pretty good money.”

It isn’t just about money, though.

The job has helped Echo with her leadership skills. She has a naturally outgoing personality, but she credits Happen with helping her cultivate “secondary traits” to enhance her leadership abilities — communications, problem-solving, logistics, and “just dealing with people.”

Echo has always considered herself an artist. She has wanted to be a filmmaker since she was in the fourth grade and has dabbled in acting over the years. 

“Happen didn’t necessarily lead me to want to do creative things, but it definitely gave me an outlet to explore various aspects of the arts,” said Echo, who has signed up to take her first drawing class at Cincinnati State.

Echo is one in a long line of children who’ve gone through the Happen, Inc. doors over the past 23 years. What started as a six-week, Saturdays-only program in 1999, has morphed into an organization that operates four weekly open studio sessions and near-countless programs throughout the year. 

Subjects range from ceramics and painting to robotics and filmmaking. They even have four community gardens spread across the 2.1-square-mile Northside community.

Making things ‘Happen’ for young people

It’s all the brainchild of Rueff, 55.

Rueff moved to Cincinnati from Chicago in 1997 after completing his Master of Fine Arts degree.

He helped co-found Barefoot Advertising (now known as Barefoot), one of the top advertising agencies in the greater Cincinnati region. 

After spending his day writing copy for product campaigns, Rueff retreated to the comfort of his studio to work on his own art. One day, a friend asked if she could bring a group of fourth-graders to his studio for a field trip.

A “boring tour of my studio” isn’t really his style, Rueff said. Instead, he wanted to give the kids a glimpse of what it’s like to be an artist. He took a day off work to put together a full program of hands-on activities. 

Tommy Rueff, the founder and director of Happen, Inc.

Tommy Rueff, the founder and director of Happen, Inc.

“The experience changed my life,” Rueff said. “My friend told me those kids are never going to forget that day and it really made me stop and think about what I was doing with my life.” 

Soon after, Rueff sold his interest in Barefoot and used a chunk of that money to start Happen, Inc. 

That first year was about figuring things out, said Rueff, who also worked as an adjunct professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Those first few months, Happen offered limited studio time and only involved about 100 children.

“We’d just repeat projects over and over while we were developing,” Rueff said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Now, they have more than 100 different sessions a year—not including open studio time, travel trips to places like the Cincinnati Observatory or any of Happen’s major eight programs. 

There’s also Toy Lab, which lets kids and parents build a creation of their own out of broken or second-hand toys. It’s the only Happen program that costs money to take part.

Almost all of Happen’s programs receive funding from grants or private donations.

Happen provides more than 18,000 individual experiences for kids each year. An experience means every time a person spends at least 30 minutes in a Happen program. For example, if a person spent 45 minutes in the Toy Lab and then painted in the studio for another hour, that would count as two experiences.

‘It made me feel like I was capable of doing something special’

One of the first people to sign up for a Happen session was Chloe Watkins and her mom, Jane.

Watkins was just 6 at the time, but she fondly remembers some of those early projects. Among them were a flipbook made of hand-drawn sketches and a ceramic cup that “looked more like a pencil,” she said with a smile.

“The activities Tommy came up with were so unique and all the people helping him out were just super funky people who made learning fun,” Watkins added. “They weren’t classes in the traditional sense. They’re really more discovery experiences.”

A photo of Chloe Watkins at Happen, Inc. Watkins was one of the first participants in Happen programming. (Photo courtesy of Chloe Watkins)

A photo of Chloe Watkins at Happen, Inc. Watkins was one of the first participants in Happen programming. (Photo courtesy of Chloe Watkins)

One of her favorite memories is arriving at the studio on a Saturday morning only to have the Happen staff acting like paparazzi and treating the kids like they were celebrities.

Each of the students had their photo enlarged on an 18” x 24” poster board.

“They were, like, ‘It’s Chloe! Oh my god, she’s so incredible,’” Watkins said.

“As a little kid, it felt so good to have these adults you looked up to saying these positive affirmations about you, like ‘you’re amazing’ or ‘you’re so cool,’ she added. “It made me feel like I was special and capable of doing something special.”

Part of the Rueff’s inspiration for Happen, Inc. stems from a swimming pool, of all places. Growing up in Jeffersonville, Ind., about 100 miles southeast of Cincinnati, Rueff had a swim coach who gave away free swim lessons to kids and their guardians. The goal was to let them learn and grow together.

“Learning to swim alongside my dad was such a special experience,” he said. “I looked at my passions and art and what I was doing at the time, and really want to reflect that through Happen.”

Rueff mirrors that approach at Happen. The kids work on projects side-by-side with a parent or guardian to deepen their connections.

Watkins learned a lot creating art alongside her mom, she said. But she also appreciated getting to know kids from across greater Cincinnati, many of whom she may not have interacted with otherwise.

More than half of the people who visit Happen, Inc. come from outside Northside and its 45223 zip code, Rueff said.

On New Year’s Day 2022, Watkins made a return trip to Happen, Inc. It was her first time back in a year-and-a-half. The 29-year-old has been living in Los Angeles and working for a fashion brand since graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 2015 with a degree in fashion design.

To honor her return, and to celebrate Happen’s 23rd anniversary, Rueff interviewed Watkins for a segment on the KMNH (“Kids Making the News Happen”) newscast.

Chloe Watkins with Happen, Inc. founder Tommy Rueff. (Photo courtesy of Chloe Watkins)

Chloe Watkins with Happen, Inc. founder Tommy Rueff. (Photo courtesy of Chloe Watkins)

It’s a student-run newscast based out of a studio at Happen, Inc. A crew of pre-teens and teenagers put together a scripted 10- to 15-minute broadcast each night that airs on the Happen’s YouTube page.

Rueff asked Watkins to share her experience at Happen and to talk about what her life is like working in design and what it took to get there. 

Watkins admitted to being a little humbled by the interview, but she felt glad to help give back—“even if just for a little bit”—to help Happen and the kids whose shoes she once wore.

“It was so professional, and it was just these kids and this little studio,” Watkins said. “They turned on all the lights and started asking questions, just going back-and-forth about what things were like 23 years ago.”

KMNH was one of the few Happen programs mostly unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rueff printed off KMNH backdrops and delivered them to the kids so they could produce stories at home. One of those people was Echo.

The teens would have a meeting to discuss assignments in the morning and film stories on iPads and cellphones in the afternoon, Echo recalled. The segments would air by that same evening.

For three months, they produced a show every single day.

A key program during the pandemic has been outdoor experiences. Those include a mixture of science and nature expeditions, largely focused on Happen’s four community gardens.

Last summer, Happen’s kids conducted an air pollution study in Northside; they’re applying for a grant to expand the study.

“The gardens have been awesome,” Rueff said. “Being able to be outside kept a lot of neighborhood kids from being locked up during lockdown.”

A homecoming for hundreds of Happen kids

Phoenix Jackson, another former Happen kid, volunteers in the gardens four to six weekends every year. 

In the mid-2000s, Jackson spent a lot of his middle-school years messing around in Happen’s studios. His mother ran a home day care center and Jackson and the handful of kids she looked after would head over to the studio “pretty much every day.”

Back then, he took part in all the projects — everything from pottery to carving pumpkins at Halloween. He would often volunteer to staff Happen’s table at Northside’s annual Fourth of July celebration at Hoffner Park.

Phoenix Jackson working as a landscaper. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Jackson)

Phoenix Jackson working as a landscaper. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Jackson)

But Happen’s real impact on Jackson’s life occurred while he became a teenager.

Jackson needed community service hours to graduate from his Montessori high school. Happen let him tend its gardens, doing everything from starting sprouts in the spring and planting them to running the compost and harvesting vegetables in the fall.

He was also an original member of the Breadwinners program.

“Tommy has been a huge part of my life,” said Jackson. “He’s kept me out of a lot of trouble when I was younger just by providing a safe environment and providing me with work and encouraging me to finish school.”

Jackson moved back to Cincinnati a few years ago and lives a few miles from Happen’s studio. Soon after returning to town, the 26-year-old reconnected with Rueff.

Jackson was going through a career change amid the pandemic, and Rueff gave him work as a gardener. The experience inspired him to go into landscaping full time.

To offer thanks, Jackson and his partner recently invited Rueff to their house for dinner.

Rueff called it a surreal experience. 

“It makes me feel old every day,” he joked. “It’s wild to see these kids today — they’re not kids anymore. They’ve got their own families and are doing great things in life.”

Rueff loves seeing former Happen kids walk through his door with their own children. It’s occurring more and more these days, he said. And he hopes it continues for years to come.

“It’s really special,” Rueff said. “It shows that what we’re doing has an impact. You can’t ask for more than that.”


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