Artistic Freedom

updated 08/21/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BEGINNINGS: At home on summer evenings in Hamden, Conn., in the mid-'90s, Carmella Ricciardelli would open her door to get some air—and find a bored-looking group of neighborhood teens hanging out on her porch. Realizing they were hungry for something to do, the now-44-year-old jewelry designer gathered some leftover art supplies and started holding impromptu craft-making lessons in the fading light. In 1996, she launched Crafts on the Block, driving her van to New Haven's toughest neighborhoods five nights a week for six weeks every summer and scrounging up art materials at yard sales and even Dumpsters, spending about $50 a month of her own money to keep it going. "I don't buy new clothes, I never go out to dinner," she says. "Bringing art to the kids is an absolute priority."

NOW: Ricciardelli—whom kids call the Art Lady—draws from 60 to 140 youngsters a night and reaches about 1,800 each summer. "It makes me happy when I do something beautiful," says Kahsona Douglas, 10. Local police approve. "It gives kids confidence and motivation," says New Haven police officer Mike Novella. Ricciardelli, whose first group included a boy who used art to cope with his grief after his mother was shot and killed, has her own reasons to keep going. "There are a lot of needy children," she says. "They know they can count on me."

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