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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Tahriq James practices drums at Spy Hop Productions in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in preparation for a musical career.

SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Curland has been making fiction movies and documentaries since her early teenage years.

Back then, it was with the time and resources of a hobbyist. But two years ago, she found a way to take it to the next level and prepare for a career in filmmaking.

Curland enrolled in Spy Hop Productions, an after-school program in Salt Lake City that combines technology and the arts to teach courses such as film, radio, music, video game design and other media platforms.

It was an outlet that helped Curland develop her creative abilities and skills that apply to other pursuits, she said.

"It helps me do better in all the areas of my life," Curland said. "Working with anything else in school or in life, it's really easy because I'm used to making deadlines and I'm used to working at a professional level."

The Herriman student is now a freshman at Salt Lake Community College, but she now enjoys helping other young students find their way in a similar journey.

"Working at Spy Hop is taking me to the next level, and I've been able to really apply what I love to do," she said. "Here at Spy Hop, they've just let me find myself."

Spy Hop is one of 12 after-school programs across the country being recognized at the White House on Tuesday by first lady Michelle Obama, who will present each organization with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

The award recognizes "the country's best creative youth development programs for increasing academic achievement, graduation rates and college enrollment by engaging children and youth in the arts and humanities," according to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The Salt Lake City-based program was chosen from among 285 nominated programs and 50 finalists.

"If there was a Grammy for after-school programs, this would be it," said program director Matt Mateus. "It's actually supercool to be recognized for this. We are really honored, really humbled by that."

Spy Hop is a nonprofit that operates with the help of corporate and government grants, as well as private contributions, to ensure that most courses are offered to students at no cost. Each year, some 2,000 students ages 7 to 20 enroll at the program's headquarters in Salt Lake City, but faculty and mentors also travel to 90 schools throughout the area to teach another 5,000 students.

Each class is designed to help students develop "soft skills," such as communication and critical thinking, while practicing skills akin to more technical subjects, such as science, technology, engineering and math, Mateus said.

"Digital media arts, in kind of a simplified form, is any sort of art that you make with a computer," he said. "We spend a lot of time in front of computer screens, and we know there are a lot of opportunities for careers and we want to ensure our young people are prepared to enter into the workforce and understand how to share their ideas."

Other programs being recognized by the first lady are based in various states, and each of them focus on providing mentoring for young students as they transition into college or internships. The award includes a $10,000 grant and one year of training from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for faculty members.

Kasandra VerBrugghen, executive director of Spy Hop, was present in Washington, D.C., to accept the award Tuesday. She said the citation reflects the willingness of community members to contribute financially and academically, and it will help program leaders springboard into a campaign this spring to build a permanent facility for students to attend.

"This award comes at a really great time for the organization in helping to elevate our work in the community," VerBrugghen said. "While this is a super pivotal moment in time for our organization, really at the end of the day, what this says is that we've got a community that supports the next generation of young leaders and helps them to achieve their goals."

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In a prepared statement, Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said after-school programs driven by the arts provide ways for students to get an early start on working toward a career they'll enjoy.

"You can't help but be moved by these kids who show us the transformative power of the arts and humanities," Goslins said. "They are staying in school longer, getting better grades, graduating from high school and going to college at significantly higher rates than their peers. And they're building skills that will last them a lifetime."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen