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Boys Town Painting a Bright Future for Children with Art Town

Photo: Michael Schwarz/Special to the Democrat

The following story is written by ​TaMaryn Waters, Tallahassee Democrat , and was posted on on June 9, 2014.

Just beyond a short trail from the campus of Boys Town North Florida, a brick house is undergoing an HGTV-like transformation. Soon it will be a place where the arts will be the instrument to reach troubled children.

A flurry of fundraising efforts are aimed at helping Boys Town raise money for a new concept: Art Town, a multi-use retreat for therapy, mentoring and creativity for children and families — from Boys Town and from the greater community — who need assistance, training and support.

The garage becomes an art studio. The living room will be a gallery for children who find peace on canvas to exhibit their work. Another room will be a meeting space where potential foster parents are trained in preparation for taking a child in to become a "forever family."

Other spaces will be for therapy sessions and a computer lab. A large windowed porch overlooking a lush lawn and tall trees will be a lounge for quiet time. Plans for every room embody what Art Town stands for — art, resources and training.

"You have to have vision," said development director Dena Strickland, standing in a nearly packed garage and rattling off a range of uses she envisions for the 2.5-acre property.
Much of the materials and labor is being donated by community members and businesses. The estimated cost for Art Town is $400,000, including the refurbished house and property, renovations and other costs. The goal is to open sometime next year.

So far, backers have raised more than half of what's needed.

Tallahassee artists Kelly Pettit, Kathleen Carter, Mary Solomon and Audra Pittman jumped at a chance to work on the project. They, too, envision the possible uses for the new space, to span visual art, dance, theater and other art forms.

They were recently a part of a hands-on art gala event where Boys Town children customized miniature birdhouses. The kids, many of whom have behavioral challenges, couldn't stop raving about their creations. That enthusiasm ignited more motivation to make Art Town a reality.

Pittman said the updated Cultural Plan calls for educational opportunities where artists volunteer their time and talents to work with local children.

"I think it presents something for (the Council on Culture & Arts) to get behind and really rally the whole arts community," said Pittman, COCA's new executive director.

The local Boys Town, which has affiliations with the national organization, takes in boys and girls ages 10 to 17 who have experienced abuse and trauma no child should endure. They're often emotionally broken and behind in school.

Crystal, 16, whose last name is being withheld for confidentiality reasons, came to Boys Town roughly seven months ago. She said her mother abused drugs and alcohol, and the state removed Crystal and her younger sister.

She's learning to find herself at Boys Town, enjoying outdoor walks and connecting with friends, pictures of many of whom are plastered above her bedroom headboard.

The teen is looking forward to Art Town's opening. Crystal, a participant in the art gala, said doing art is like going on a vacation.

"It helps you get away and helps you focus on what you're doing right then," she said. "It can also help you think of different ways to handle something, whether it is positive or negative."

During a tour of the former residential home last week, Strickland said she's hoping Art Town's offerings will nudge children to open up and be receptive to tools designed to help them reach personal heights.

"This is why it will help children like Crystal, because she can get the tutoring in place," Strickland said. "This will add another level of support to help her thrive."

How to help
Donations for Art Town can be made online.

On July 23, Boys Town of North Florida is hosting a fundraiser for Art Town. "Cocktails for a Cause" will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at Bella Bella, 123 E. Fifth Ave. Tickets cost $25 each, which includes drinks and appetizers.

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