Off the street, onto the wall

What started out as a small community art program has transformed the lives of kids in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tampa, providing educational opportunities they may not have had otherwise.

The neighborhood is Sulphur Springs. Community Stepping Stones (CSS) is run by Ed Ross and Michael Parker, both art instructors at USF and residents of Sulphur Springs. The non-profit organization takes volunteers, mostly students from the USF art department, and allows them to teach different art skills to children ages 8 to 17. In teaching about art, the volunteers have found a way to instill the basic life skills necessary for the kids to successfully grow from children to adults.

“When I moved into the neighborhood and saw what was going on here … I really got to know the kids and saw the need, and thought, ‘This is really something that would be valuable for everybody,'” Ross said. “The art students (at USF) get a practical application of their skills and get to work with students … and they’re really great role models because now these kids have seen somebody that is in college and is working their way through it. And most of (the kids), none of their family members have been through college. A lot of them never went through high school, let alone college.”

According to statistics provided by CSS, 3,000 residents of Sulphur Springs are children, yet its only recreational facility has a maximum occupancy of 300. Forty percent of residents are below the poverty line, and 60 percent are black.

Ross said the kids in CSS have been “more responsible, more mature and more focused on what they’re doing with their lives. When we first started working with them, not one of them wanted to go to college, and some were actively opposed to it. Everyone that’s been with us for a year or longer is now on the college track.”

Parker said prostitution, scamming and drugs are some of the problems he thinks this organization helps steer kids away from.

“It takes a very small amount of values and ethics to cut it off early,” Parker said. “If you know the way out, at least you have that.”

After an idea is set, CSS hires the kids to execute it with the skills they’ve learned from the classes provided by CSS. Getting in trouble at school or at home causes the kids to lose two weeks of pay. This is one method they use to teach the kids about responsibility.

CSS’s latest project is an 80- by 25-foot mural in Rowlett Park, adjacent to another mural the group finished painting in April.

“When we’re out here (painting), they’re pretty professional. They’re working on their respect levels, personal space, boundaries, stuff like that,” Parker said.

After months of brainstorming, the students decided the mural would be about women and their contributions to raising children in the community, Ross said. Before finalizing the design, the group met with other community organizations, such as the Neighborhood Association and the Public Art Department, to make sure everyone was in agreement. The people portrayed in the mural are members of the community, mainly family members of the kids involved.

“This gave them a chance to connect with their community on a really large scale,” Parker said.

One of the students, Lakeema Matthew, glowed as she pointed to a pin she was wearing. It was from the International Academy of Design and Technology, the college she is planning to attend after graduating from Tampa Bay Tech High School this school year.

She said along with learning how to mix colors and paint better, “(CSS) taught us how to deal with life itself because we’re not going to be kids forever. Hopefully I’ll be around with them for a while, even when I’m out of high school, and help them on their next project,” she said.

Another student, Yvenel Casseide, 14, has been with the program for two and a half years.

“I love this project because I’m an artist, and when I get to express my art in many different ways, it makes me feel good about myself,” Casseide said.

Although his interest has increased, Casseide has a passion for drawing comics.

“It’s actually more of my domain,” he said. “I live for art.”Even if students are hesitant about their artistic abilities, Ross is convinced art is for everyone.

“I don’t believe in talent,” he said. “Everybody’s an artist. Art is what makes us human. That’s my basic underlying philosophy. If you want to be human, you have to be engaged in the arts.”

Another CSS volunteer is USF alumnus David Bush, who received a degree in fine art last spring. Bush began volunteering in order to fulfill an internship requirement. He has stayed with the program ever since.

“I was just trying to graduate and tie up all the loose ends and kind of fell into a really good thing,” he said.

Bush found it hard to put into words what affect this program has had on him.

“I thank (Parker) and (Ross) every day when we finish because this is an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s great for the kids and us, too. They have plans to do bigger and better things and to keep doing murals. I’m gonna hang with them as long as I can,” Bush said.

To Ross, volunteering is a way of life.

“If I live in a place, I have a responsibility for it,” Ross said. “If we all had that responsibility and participated, our communities and government would be very different. We would have no poverty, we’d have no hungry people, we’d have all highly educated people with good paying jobs, we’d have land set aside for the environment, for saving species. We’d have all of those things if we were actively involved in our world. So for me, it’s my responsibility, but it also creates a sane world.

“And at the same time, it is a tremendous amount of joy to watch positive things happening in your world and the world around you,” Ross said. “To me, it’s a way of life and a way of joy. It’s who I am. I don’t think I’m doing good work or anything, I just think I’m being normal.”

CSS is supported by the USF School of Art and Art History, the City of Tampa Public Art Program, the City of Tampa Mayors Beautification Program, the Bank of America Foundation Fund for Arts in the Community and the Sulphur Springs Neighborhood Association, among others.

This year, Ross and Parker received the USF Award of Excellence for their leadership in CSS. They are also teaching an art course at USF that involves participation in the community project.