Community Stepping Stones offers classes for at risk teens

04/16/12 Andrea Lypka
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Recent budget cuts have prompted some nonprofit organizations in Tampa Bay to scale back on their programs. But one organization in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa instead offers more classes and extends their urban arts program to youth and adults.

Until the recent budget cuts at Hillsborough County public schools, for the past 15 years, artist Terry Klaaren has been transforming the walls of public schools into community mural projects.

"And the schools had better budgets and a little more they could work with as far as doing fun things and atmosphere improvements in schools to make them less institutional. But, on the other hand, as in so many other aspects of life these days, then the volunteer aspect is kicking in; people are raising funds," Klaaren said.

Klaaren says that when funds dry up for his public arts projects, the community steps in. A similar shift is noticeable at Community Stepping Stones,a nonprofit learning center where Klaaren teaches at-risk teens to become successful adults through art.

"I love these weekend sessions, that’s wonderful," said one of the attendees, Carol Meyers, who checks out Klaaren’s rain barrel painting class. "Well definitely I'd like to paint my rain barrel and it sounds like he has some good techniques that wouldn't occur to me if I were doing it on my own. And then Ross is the potter, and I’ve always wanted to through a pot, I just haven't gotten around to it yet."

University of South Florida art instructor and Sulphur Springs resident Ed Ross envisions Community Stepping Stones as a creative learning facility to at-risk adults.

"Everybody is a great artist if you live in a small-scale society. But we separate ourselves so much and we all have these separate jobs, we forget we are all one group of people. But I can show you books full of images you would say were made by artists and some of them were made by kids, some of them were made by communities but everybody in that community is an artist," Ross said.

Director Sigrid Tidmore says that the after-school classes offer students more than art.

"Yes, you might learn how to draw a dog, but more importantly, you will learn how to see that dog differently and see it in the context of life differently. And think about how we are all connected and how think through problems associated with art. We like to tell people that you can teach anything through art, mathematics, humanities, geography, you can teach anything through art. So that’s what we do, we turn it into a vehicle for making you a more whole person," Tidmore said.

For example, students have to take the 16-week-long Think Smart class.

"And it teaches them how to be a responsible employee. And then they go to work either as a teaching assistant in this program or they paint murals, which is another program we have. We supervise them, we teach them and as they get better and better at it, we can use that to help them get into college, to help them when they get out of high school, they already have a resume in places they've worked and people who would vouch for them," she said.

Ashley Olds, a social work major at St. Petersburg College has been a volunteer with Community Stepping Stones since 2006. At the beginning she was a community outreach coordinator.

"So I went out into the neighborhoods and I tried to recruit kids, tell them why it was a good idea for them to come here. Talked to the parents, let their parents know that this is what we have happening and it's free. It's kids, I love kids, kids touch my heart," Olds said.

She hopes that volunteers and donations will keep this organization afloat to serve the local community.

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