There's a place where teens can go after school to practice their art— be it dancing, acting, singing, writing, drawing or video production— and escape the pressures of school, life and beyond while getting instruction and inspiration from teachers. The Arts Conservatory for Teens offers arts education to students, especially those at risk and underprivileged, at the Enoch D. Davis Center as well as in workshops at schools including John Hopkins and Tyrone middle schools.
Supporters of the Arts Conservatory for Teens, known as ACT, saw the fruits of the program in action at its recent fundraiser, Champions for ACT Breakfast at the Morean Center for Clay, when students performed live and spoke out in a video.
"There isn't really any other place like ACT," said Bryson Maddox. "All the people here are experienced professionals. They are young, they are down to earth. They can help you in anything you want to learn.
Hannah Barrens, an instructor, sees the program's benefits in action.
"Not only are we teaching them to open up their minds creatively, they learn interpersonal skills, they gain confidence, they learn to deal with stress in their everyday lives," she said. "We do yoga and meditation even. They have a chance to try different things and become successful, confident adults."
ACT, which was co-founded by Alex Harris and Herbert Murphy, also gives students the opportunity to perform before a crowd at schools and venues such as the Studio@620. Students attend professional performances and some have even played with the Florida Orchestra.
Since 2009, 100 percent of ACT's students have graduated from high school with a diploma and 90 percent have enrolled in higher education.
As Sarah Bareilles' song Brave blasted through the ballroom at the Hilton Carillon Park, proud girls dressed to the nines who attend PACE girls school circulated through the crowd of 400.
Don't run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is
The girls, who have been involved in the juvenile justice system before coming to PACE, were the guests of honor at the Beth Dillinger Foundation's Value Me luncheon. The nonprofit organization founded by Kay Dillinger and husband Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger, started out donating clothes to girls at PACE through a project called Beth's Closet. It is named after their daughter who died at age 32 in 2006. Eleven years later, the program has raised more than $1.4 million and funds numerous programs aimed at helping youth and teens in need get tools to succeed. The annual fundraiser, now in its 10th year, features the PACE students walking a fashion runway after a morning of pampering including professional hair and makeup and a limo ride.
The special day doesn't erase their struggles with drugs, abuse or the bouncing between foster homes and schools. But they get to see the people who believe in them by donating money for scholarships.
Cat Coats, a close friend of the Dillingers, emceed the fashion show introducing the girls by name and calling them "stunning and smart" or "gorgeous and accomplished," because they all know it takes more than good hair and makeup to gain success in life. With the stability and support they find at PACE, grades go up, negative behavior improves and hope grows.
Bob Dillinger spoke about another program funded by the Beth Dillinger Foundation. Nourish to Flourish works with Pack A Sack to provide food for chronically hungry children on the weekends. They started the program three years ago when he heard about students going through the garbage at school to find food to take home for themselves and younger siblings to eat on the weekends.
"These children are either going to be an asset to the community or they are going to be a liability and I have seen too many liabilities in my life," he said. "We have to give these children the ability to strive and thrive."
He shared the story of a woman who wrote to Dillinger after hearing him speak about Nourish to Flourish on another occasion. She said she was once a single mother working two jobs and going to community college who had to put her child to bed hungry and wishes the program had been there to help.
"These aren't parents that are derelict," Dillinger said. "They are the working poor."