Tallahassee church unites art and soul

As public schools around the state crunch numbers to make ends meet, visual and performing arts classes are often the first subjects to be cut.

But a Methodist church in Tallahassee is attempting to ensure that all children in the community have an opportunity to explore their artistic potential.

The Rev. Betsy Quellette Zierden, senior pastor at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, said she’s always had a particular love of the arts. So, when she was tasked with starting a church in the newly developed Tallahassee community of Southwood 10 years ago, she was determined to incorporate the arts in the church’s mission.

Making visual and performing arts a priority, Good Samaritan UMC has established a comprehensive arts program including theater, choir and dance.

“We looked around at what was missing and how we could be a community center as well as a church,” Zierden said. “We found there was a lack of opportunities in the performing arts, so we built a dance floor and started offering dance classes.”

Instrument and voice lessons soon followed. By 2008, the church had established a comprehensive arts program for children of all ages and abilities called Good Sam Arts.

“We now have three theater groups, a show choir and dance troupes that perform at events throughout the community,” Zierden said.

The program offers painting, drawing, ceramics and other visual arts classes, as well.

With the objective of “uniting art and soul,” Good Sam Arts not only fulfills Zierden’s desire to serve the community at large, but also has become a vehicle for attracting new members to the church, as Amy Parks can attest.

“I heard about the arts classes at the church and decided to enroll my children,” said Parks, a mother of four who majored in the arts in college.

Parks was especially interested in Good Sam Arts’ emphasis on classes for children with autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other sensory processing disorders.

“My son, Kayden, has high-functioning autism,” she said. “You couldn’t hug or kiss him. He didn’t like social interaction of any kind.”

Hoping to entice him out of his shell, Parks enrolled him in Good Sam Arts’ theater program when he was 6 years old.

“He was terrified to get on stage when I first enrolled him,” she said. “Fast forward 2 1/2 years later: He’s become a totally different child. He just auditioned in front of three directors and sang ‘Submarine.’”

She credits theater instructor Holly McPhail with bringing her son out of his shell.

“She gave him opportunities to grow but never pushed him,” Parks said. “I’ve cried a lot of happy tears in the last couple of years.”

About 30 of Good Sam Arts’ 150 students have special needs, including the dance director’s two daughters, who are autistic.

“We have 14 instructors who are expert at working with kids,” said Parks. “Some of them are in the process of getting doctorates at FSU (Florida State University in Tallahassee). The arts are a great educational opportunity for students who can’t learn through conventional methods.”

As a result of her children’s participation in theater, piano and drum classes at Good Sam Arts, Parks said she found a home at the church.

“When we first moved to Tallahassee, I had problems connecting with women and didn’t have any friends for years,” she said. “But the moment I walked into Good Samaritan, I felt comfortable, like I belonged.”

Parks now serves as executive director of the Good Sam Arts.

Six of the program's 14 instructors now offer music, drama and dance to more than 30 children at the Good Sam Arts community center.

“I love that Good Sam Arts make us unique. We’ve always had members involved in the arts. It’s one of our gifts and talents,” she said. “We bring in a lot of families through the arts. The families who come in can’t help but feel the love and passion of our teachers, staff and parents.”

Zierden, however, wasn’t satisfied with simply providing art classes at the church.

“Part of the strategic plan of the church is to reach out to the community through Good Sam Arts, so the next natural step was to bring the arts to children who don’t have the opportunity to take art classes.”

“It wasn’t difficult to determine where to focus the church’s outreach,” she said.

Just 2.9 miles from the church is a housing project called Orange Avenue Apartments in the South City, a Tallahassee community besieged by high crime and unemployment.

“It’s one of the most poverty-stricken areas in our city,” Zierden said. “It’s a persistent pocket of poverty with no upward mobility. So, as I began praying and asking Jesus what we should do next, it became pretty clear.”

Her prayers were confirmed after speaking to city commissioners, who told her the community was in desperate need of after-school enrichment programs.

“I thought, ‘We can do that,’” she said.

In August, Good Sam Arts began hosting art classes at the Oliver Hill Community Center located within the housing project.

“We sent an outreach social worker to the community in March to get to know the residents and develop trust,” Zierden said. “By the time we were ready to launch the program, they’d opened our hearts to us. Each week, more and more students attend the classes.”

Six of Good Sam Arts’ 14 instructors now offer music, drama and dance classes at the community center for more than 30 children age 9 to 13.

“We want to get kids excited about the arts and give them an opportunity to learn something they’ve never been exposed to before,” Parks said.

Funding for the program is provided by the nonprofit Stacey Webb Arts Foundation.

“The foundation was started in memory of Stacey Webb, a parishioner who passed away last year,” said Jania Kadar, creative director for Good Sam Arts. “She was passionate about the arts and it was her dream to provide art instruction for underprivileged kids.”

Using a donated recreational vehicle, the aRt-V offers street murals painted by church members, local businesses and kids. Plans include bringing visual arts and theater to impoverished neighborhoods.  

With the immediate success of the outreach initiative in South City, the church is now preparing to take Good Sam Arts on the road, thanks, once again, to its senior pastor.

“I had a recreational vehicle that wasn’t getting much use, so I came up with the idea of using it to take the arts to other underserved communities,” Zierden said.

She put Kadar in charge of transforming the RV into an “aRt-V.”

“After talking with Pastor Betsy and the church council, I came up with the idea of painting a street mural on the RV and inviting church members, business people and kids in the community to help paint it so everyone has a creative and spiritual investment in the aRt-V,” Kadar said.

Assisting in the effort is Dr. Dave Gussak, chairman of the art therapy department at FSU and the father of a student at the church’s early learning center, Good Samaritan Academy.

A colorful sign on one side of the RV reads: “Good Sam Arts—Uniting Art and Soul.”

The other side is decorated with the words, “Choose Joy.”

Kadar added that once the design is finished, plans include driving the aRt-V into neighborhoods and giving residents an opportunity to help paint it.

“It’s been really fun,” said Zierden, who had the chance to add her own artistic flourishes to the vehicle. “Our congregation really believes in being involved in the community as citizens and they’re very excited.”

Zierden’s vision is to stock the RV with art supplies, musical instruments and other items that will allow children to explore their artistic creativity on-site.

In addition to making an appearance at local festivals and community events, the aRt-V will follow the America’s Second Harvest food distribution truck into impoverished communities and expose children to the arts while their parents accept groceries from the food truck.

“We plan to offer visual arts, a drum circle, perhaps a puppet theater,” said Parks. “The possibilities are limitless. We want to get kids excited about the arts.”

“We were created to be creative, and the arts are a great way to bridge communities,” said Kadar.

To help stock the aRt-V with supplies and provide scholarships for children in need, the Stacey Webb Arts Foundation will host its first Stacey’s Joy Ride, a bike and brunch fundraising event, Saturday, Nov. 12.

For those unable to attend, the foundation accepts donations through its website, www.staceywebb.org.

Children in the carousel photo are, from left to right: Dezirage Burgess, Khloe Parks and Alexander Ford.

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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