Ridgite preaches the power of the pencil

Putting pencils to paper: Bay Ridge resident James Faraguna collects pencils for his “Pencils for Peace” program, which is geared toward junior high school students in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

He’s No. 1 in No. 2 — pencils!

A Bay Ridge veteran and part-time Istanbul ex-pat encourages Turkish kids to get a good education by teaching them how to draw with pencils emblazoned with the logos of American universities.

Each year, James Faraguna travels from Bay Ridge to Istanbul where he teaches middle school-aged kids English and leads them in an art workshop based on the ones he’s taken for 20 years at Brooklyn’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital in hopes of encouraging the students to be creative and express themselves.

“Shoot for the moon, that should be your goal,” he said. “I’m trying to fan the flames to get a fire going.”

Faraguna’s “Pencils for Peace” is named for his annual pre-trip pencil collection, when he gathered engraved pens and pencils from American colleges and universities for the students to draw with so they have a constant reminder of the higher-education opportunities available in the United States. More than 1,600 pens and pencils had been donated to him by colleges and universities prior to his Sept. 11 departure. (Not to miss an opportunity to get new fans, the Brooklyn Cyclones also gave him 36 baseball caps).

His students are taught to create art based on a word that Faraguna gives them — such as “love,” “guidance,” or “healing” — and they together work on abstract shapes they take turns drawing.

Faraguna has spent six months of each year in Turkey with his Turkish wife, Gunsel Yildirin, for the past 17 years. But he only started “Pencils for Peace” three years ago, with the encouragement of Melanie Zarabi, the coordinator of the VA’s creative arts therapy and clubhouse programs.

Zarabi, who has worked on art therapy programs at the hospital for the past 37 years, said Faraguna’s passion for art and its power make him the perfect person to lead the program.

“He’s very dedicated to his work and he just seems to be so enthusiastic about art and artwork, which he feels has really helped him in his own process in learning more about himself,” she said.

In this year’s installment Faraguna will work with two public and private school classes of boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 13 for about an hour each week.

Faraguna said that after he kicks off the lesson, he forces the children to take charge of their creative processes in order to help them become more confident with independent problem solving and decision-making.

“I’m quiet,” he said. “The kids ask, ‘well what should we do?’ And I say, ‘Well, you have to decide that. You can figure out what you’re doing and do it. You don’t need me. What is your brain telling your hand to do?’ ”

Faraguna was injured when he fell out of a helicopter while studying at West Point in 1974. He then went to study Renaissance art at Urbino University in Italy. Soon after, he received a degree in early childhood special education from Brooklyn College in 1977, and then graduated from New York Law School in 1980. He went on to work as a legal aid criminal defense attorney and also taught at Brooklyn College Academy. He said he has five years of teaching experience and 12 years of coaching experience due, in part, to his years of coaching American football at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

For Faraguna, art is an accessible and universal language of peaceful expression, he said, which keeps him inspired to continue “Pencils for Peace” each year.

“It’s fun. Everyone can do art,” he said. “What’s mightier, the sword or the pen? At this point in my life, I realize, it’s the pen.”

For more information, contact james_f_faraguna@yahoo.com

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

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