As soon as Cpl. Mary Guyer walked into the Habitat ReStore, her eyes were drawn to the eight decorative doors that lined the back of the showroom. One of the brightly painted portals depicted a circle of children overlooking the world, as well as a line of Habitat for Humanity houses.
"My kids did this," whispered Guyer, eyes filling with tears.
Standing at Guyer's side were those 30 junior artists, young residents of the Dade Oaks public housing development. Guyer meets every day with the kids at the Dade Oaks Community Center in her role as Officer Friendly. Her job is to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.
"Every day after school these kids come to me," said Guyer, who became an Officer Friendly two years ago. "This is a place where they know they will be safe and loved."
And productive, as indicated by the eight brightly painted doors that are now permanent fixtures at the Habitat for Humanity of East and Central Pasco. Yet in Guyer's eyes, the doors they painted at the community center are far more than decorative art pieces. They are entryways that could lead to a better life for the students who created them.
Guyer's Dade Oaks students meet weekly with representatives from the Prodigy program, a nonprofit that uses visual and performing arts to reach at-risk youth. The program serves about 500 children in Pasco County alone.
"Prodigy sends me three instructors and art supplies free of charge," said Guyer. "My kids take these supplies and make something beautiful."
Under the guidance of Guyer, Pasco Prodigy site manager Jacqueline Bayliss, and Prodigy teachers Jennifer Willis and Adrian Errico, her students have created painted portraits, Christmas ornaments and clay collectibles.
"And they made posters for me," Guyer said with a smile, "to tell me they loved me."
Through contacts at Saint Leo University, Guyer got word of a community project that required the students' developing talents.
The east Pasco Habitat ReStore, which sells salvaged building supplies and other used items, received a surplus shipment of donated doors that they planned to use as decorative pieces in the store showroom. The problem was that these used slabs of wood, while still sturdy and functional, were hardly eye-catching.
What they needed, according to Habitat ReStore officials Jere Ferguson and Niki Trapnell, was a child's touch. They asked Guyer to put her kids — and their imaginations — to work.
"Kids in that area have limited access to things they can do and few art supplies at home," said Trapnell. "I thought we needed to get them into the store."
Ferguson and Trapnell asked the kids to base their designs on their personal concepts of home.
"The only limit to their creativity was their own imagination," said Ferguson.
The young artists set to work emblazoning the old doors with murals that depicted various concepts of home. One displayed a multicolored puzzle with a few pieces missing. Another showed a school of fish swimming the depths of an aquarium.
The redecorated doors were delivered to the ReStore at 15029 U.S. 301 in Dade City, where Guyer and the students got to see them Tuesday on display in the store's showroom.
Ferguson and Trapnell thanked the young artists for their work, offering them pizza and balloons and encouraging them to sign their art. The kids stared at their doors with wide eyes, pointing to the images with exclamations such as "Wow!" and "Cool!"
"We taught the kids that they could take these old, ugly doors and turn them into something beautiful, something that would help them give back to the community," said Guyer. "They took pride in their work."
Through these projects and others, Guyer says that her kids are discovering their creative sides.
"The students are now taking a special interest in art and drawing," she said. "Here they are discovering an ability and talent that they might not have discovered anywhere else. And if kids get excited about their talents, it gives them something to look forward to in the future. This could keep them off the streets."
And that, says Officer Friendly, is the whole idea.
"We want to make a difference in the lives of these kids," she said. "We want to show them that the sky's the limit."