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Jose Lagares remembers the exact date he set foot in CEPA Gallery after classes let out at Lafayette High School.

On Nov. 17, 2011, Lagares stepped into the gallery’s darkroom for the first time. And when he developed his first picture, something in his head clicked like the shutter on a 35 mm camera.

“I was happy happy, right?” said Lagares, a shy and rail-thin 18-year-old, who moved to Buffalo four years ago from his native Puerto Rico. “I still got the picture in my room.”

Friday, Lagares will travel to the White House in Washington, D.C., with CEPA Education Director Lauren Tent to accept a national arts education award on behalf of the gallery from first lady Michelle Obama.

CEPA, a photography gallery that offers a host of art education programs to students across Western New York, is one of 12 recipients of the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

The awards, launched in 1998 and considered the nation’s highest honor for after-school cultural programs, come with $10,000 along with “capacity-building support” from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, according to a press release.

“We are so honored and we’re so excited, and I think we’re just still so surprised,” said Lauren Tent, CEPA’s education director since 1999. The recognition the award will be bring, she added, has the potential to help the gallery expand its many in-school, after-school and summer arts education programs.

“Through these programs, young people are discovering their creative voices, developing a stronger sense of who they are as individuals, and gaining a deeper understanding of the world around them,” Obama wrote in the ceremony program, according to a release. “The programs we are honoring offer safe harbors that cultivate enthusiasm for learning, support academic achievement, and promote college readiness.”

Other organizations receiving an award this year include the Ifetayo Youth Ensemble of Brooklyn, Boston’s Children’s Chorus and WriteGirl, an after-school literary program for teen girls in Los Angeles.

CEPA offers a growing series of after-school programs aimed at teaching students life skills through photography. They range from the popular photo project “Reclaiming Buffalo,” which the gallery runs with Just Buffalo Literary Center, to “Mapping Community,” in which students go on mini-field trips to Buffalo landmarks.

“What our programs provide kids are tools to think critically, and a demonstrated increase in enthusiasm for learning, which is very important, especially as the school day becomes more and more rigid,” said CEPA Director Sean Donaher, mirroring the first lady’s remarks.

“They’re discovering a hidden talent, or learning to think critically or realizing individual voice and how to apply it to their everyday.

“These are skills that they carry forward. So whether they’re carrying those skills back to their houses or back to their schools or, as they grow older, into the community, they’re seeing themselves as agents of change,” he said.

CEPA Gallery, headquartered in the historic Market Arcade building on Main Street, was founded in 1974 as an exhibition space for experimental photography. It played an important role in Buffalo’s emergence as a center for avant garde art in the 1970s.

The gallery’s current arts education programs began to take shape in 2001, said Tent, the education director, and have become increasingly popular as time for art and creativity declines in public schools.

For Lagares, the opportunity to hone his photography skills has been life-changing. His friends and family treat him as their staff photographer now, always asking him to take pictures at birthday parties and other events. He says his older brother has encouraged him to keep at his craft, and he dreams of someday owning his own studio.

In the CEPA basement on Tuesday, a mounted collection of his photographs was spread across a table. In the upper right was Lagares’ favorite, a lonely picture of his bike on train tracks near his neighborhood with the rail running into the distance.

“Everywhere I see a line, it’s interesting. So now, I say, I like to take pictures about lines,” said Lagares, who speaks English as a second language but is more than fluent in photography. “You can see lines everywhere.”

Tent, whose work on CEPA’s education programs is in large part responsible for the award, praised Lagares’ commitment to his craft.

“I’m so excited that he’s excited about photography. And I think he’s going somewhere,” she said. “We’ll be going to Jose’s studio to have our portraits taken.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com