Community Stepping Stones

USF’s involvement in Sulphur Springs teaches the value of community art as it helps enrich and transform lives.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 7, 2012) – Sulphur Springs is a beautiful and rich neighborhood – in Ed Ross’ eyes – because, as he explains, he “knows how to see.”   


This is not an easy task when Sulphur Springs is showing its age and the wear and tear of tough times. As he points out, it is “Tampa’s lowest income neighborhood. Its statistics now are those of the Great Depression.”


Nonetheless, teaching others how to truly see is part of what he does with Community Stepping Stones (CSS), a project he founded and now serves as artistic director. He credits the University of South Florida’s School of Art and Art History with getting the nonprofit learning center started and values the continued support through USF’s Community Arts Project class which he teaches.


With its arts-integrated curriculum, CSS is a model of community art in action as it educates and mentors at-risk teens. The goal is to help them become successful adults and return prosperity to Sulphur Springs.


Ross’s first paid teaching job brought him to Sulphur Springs for the first time in 1972, strangely enough on the very site where CSS is today. But when he landed in the area on his return to graduate school in 1990, his first thought was how quickly he could bounce back out. 


“Parts of it looked like war zones and people were afraid to let their children play outside,” he said. 


But things have changed somewhat for the better and he is part of the change he wanted to see – with art as his vehicle. 


“I have run schools and taught all subjects, grades K-12 and special students, even founding an elementary school in the 1970’s. I discovered, through art, I could make any subject alive and real to students.


“During my time at USF, I became involved in studying art and culture in small scale societies in Indonesia and Africa, where everyone makes and produces art that holds their society together. From my studies, I wanted to see if what I learned could be applicable to our culture,” Ross said.


Between Ross and Wallace Wilson, director of USF’s School of Art and Art History, you won’t find greater champions of the idea that art has the power to transform lives. Their strong values and passion for community and art as a catalyst for change have fueled their commitment to CSS since it was established in 2004 – first as an after school program and then growing into a training program in 2008 with professional artists sharing their skills.


For Wilson, instrumental in getting CSS started and the organization’s inaugural board chair, art in service of community building is a heartfelt concern, one he shares through his involvement. Add to that appointing Ross each term to teach community art, he makes sure USF students gain the opportunity to turn theory into practice.    


“I think that too little is spoken about the value of citizenship,” he said. “In our professionalism we’ve often left out the notion of service to others.”


Wilson has successfully advocated for curricular opportunities for USF students to develop their "sense of humanity and participate as integral parts of this human fabric" through community engagement and art. At CSS they get to see firsthand art’s power to help people make important shifts in their lives – and be part of it.


“They recognize the study of community art as a valuable and valued part of their education experience,” he said. 


Ross, the CSS staff, the neighborhood children and USF students make important contributions in their own ways to the overall success of the project.


An alumnus and USF art instructor, Ross has taken CSS from obscurity to national recognition simply by putting in daily tireless effort. Working with community partners, he played a key role in helping to beautify his corner of the community by creating an oasis on a tranquil three-and-a-half-acre campus along the Hillsborough River that CSS occupies. Adorned in home-made murals, three colorfully-painted buildings – donated by the Hillsborough Parks Department – house facilities in which to learn and practice studio crafts and a lot more.


“You can use art to teach any subject more effectively,” he asserts. A science major who switched to art, he never lost his love of the sciences. Ross said he surprised people when he taught algebra to young children by having them work out how to prepare art projects. He continues to put his knowledge of science to work in the lives of the young people he teaches.


“Economic and social stress decrease the performance of the neural pathways – research has shown this. Learning, retention and self-esteem are directly related,” Ross said. “The very same research shows that neural performance rapidly improves with creative expression and the means to do so. The reason is quite simple. Art opens people up to new possibilities, it helps anyone gain a sense of control over their lives and cultivate positive habits. You can’t help but learn positive and constructive problem-solving skills. When young people gain all of this their personal choices and their futures consistently change for the better.”


His colleague, Sigrid Tidmore, the organization’s executive director, couldn’t agree more.


“CSS is very focused on the idea that art is a great way to encourage increased understanding of more linear subject matter, math, science, etcetera. It gives form to abstract ideas and encourages creative thinking,” she said.


“Instead of just focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), we believe our education system would be best served by a ‘STEAM’ curriculum, adding the ‘a’ for art. This was never truer than with at-risk teens who have been exposed to economic, emotional and sometimes even physical abuse.


“The arts have the ability to open up and heal and restore hope. Learning is understood to be a means of personal discovery. With our 16-week ‘Think Smart’ curriculum, students benefit from techniques that teach critical thinking and encourage positive behavior, self-esteem and personal confidence,” Tidmore said.


The staff at CSS hopes to make learning a habit and way of life that will continue. That’s where the university has played an important role in this community.


“USF students worked with us this last year during our Estuary Exploration program when we took our teens on beach clean-ups and science field studies,” Tidmore said. “There was lots of opportunity to talk about the impacts pollution had on our communities, biology careers that could make a future difference, and how what was learned could be expressed through art.”


This wasn’t the first time students have gotten involved. CSS’ long-standing working relationship with USF brings students in to serve as mentors and tutors each semester. “They've helped us renovate our facilities and they've worked on a variety of volunteer projects,” she said.


Doing the needed work is only part of the equation.


“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to our youth that they are exposed to young adults – not much older than they are – who are having successful college careers,” Tidmore said. “Many of our at-risk adolescents have never been given aspirations of college as they transition from childhood to adult responsibilities. They've never been on any college campus and they definitely don't know how to get there. Being around USF students, making friends with them, and seeing the ways that college creates opportunities for future success is an important tipping point in how our students view their future.”


Sulphur Springs resident Lakeema Matthew can draw a straight line from CSS to her present life path. She started taking classes there at the age of 14 and went on to start teaching classes at 17. Now 23, after attending Hillsborough Community College, she has been accepted to USF, entering with enough credits to be a senior. She plans to study painting and graphic design. Finding CSS a benefit in her life over the years, she has helped recruit fellow students from the neighborhood to join her there.


“A lot of kids never really see outside the neighborhood and we take them to art shows and put their art in art shows at HCC and at USF,” she said proudly. “Community Stepping Stones showed me that there’s more to life than inside the springs and about what we take for granted, like the rich history and nature. They also show me ways I can get my work out there and helped me build my portfolio and resume. I've also built a network and have professional references through people I've met.”


Equally captivated by CSS are the USF students who take classes. Some stay involved once the initial class is over.


After taking “Community Art,” seniors Raquel Garabeli and Marija Seovic signed on for extensive studies which brought them back to CSS to continue working with the young people the organization serves.


“I already have a passion to teach,” said Garabeli, who is from Brazil and transferred from St. Petersburg College. “I found that working with art makes the children open up and I really enjoy listening to them.  I’m not a professional counselor but I know art helps them feel a sense of relief and through art I felt a connection that I know makes a difference in their lives.”


A native of Serbia, Seovic is a studio art major with a concentration on painting and drawing. She transferred to USF with an associate’s degree from Oakton Community College in Illinois. She chose the Community Art class to gain experience working with children because she wants to teach elementary school.


I was not aware how important these classes are for kids. In a way, CSS is a sanctuary for them, an escape from their everyday problems and a way to learn things they never would,” she said. “The children were hesitant and careful around us in the beginning, but as the time went by, they accepted us and our help. They need this center and devoted students who will tell them that it is possible to succeed. These kids are wonderful and smart but they lack confidence. Therefore, my favorite moments were when they would finally accept the fact that they are smart and capable of making great art.”


CSS is among a growing number of community organizations that applies business strategies to achieving philanthropic goals. Two of CSS’ social enterprises, as they’re known, provide services for the community as well as work opportunities for the trainees and earned income for the learning center: public art projects (Artistic Mural Messaging) and educational workshops for adults (Inside the Creative Studio). Both are mentored by professional working artisans. The job training teaches responsibility, teamwork and craftsmanship – essential lessons on the road to financial independence.


“They’re being trained to create large images and murals for businesses, organizations and public or community projects,” Ross said. “The process involves more than art.”


Specifically, the students will meet with their clients, develop designs that meet their needs then collect and manipulate images in Photoshop and other computer programs.


“The work includes making a grid for the design and painting it on location or they will enlarge the designs, paint them here and transfer them to be mounted at the designated site.”


In time, Ross and Tidmore hope to see CSS murals all over town.


“As we acquire customers for murals we plan to work closely with the USF College of The Arts to include art students in the growth of our business plans,” Tidmore said. “It’s a win for all concerned. The customers receive a unique piece of art that communicates two messages – their own business message and the message that they’re invested in the future of the next generation.”


Ross’ work has been noticed. The Tampa Bay Lightning honored him as the fifth Lightning Community Hero of the Year and he was presented with a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program for CSS. In fact, awards have come to CSS with regularity and one of the latest also promises to have tremendous impact. As a winner in the Children's Board Business Innovation competition, it will be helped in launching Murals2Go, the business that will contribute to the organization becoming self-sustaining by 2014.


Ross is thrilled to see his vision coming together for everyone.


“We live in a time when we only thrive to the extent that we recognize and honor our interdependence. Initially, Community Stepping Stones set out to rescue and restore teens. Ultimately, all of us benefit from being involved,” Ross said.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.