TAMPA — Sculptures hung from the ceiling inside the art gallery at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City. Bright shades of pink, blue, green and yellow reflected onto the wall. From the gallery door, the pieces looked like they were made of glass.
But a few steps closer under the light revealed intricate works of art sculpted from junk.
After weeks of learning about the plankton living and making oxygen in the waterways around Tampa Bay, the teens at Community Stepping Stones created sculptures of the tiny, multicelled life forms out of old plastic bottles and caps.
Community Stepping Stones, a nonprofit that teaches art to at-risk kids in Sulphur Springs, has held shows in the HCC gallery since the organization began in 2003. It's grown from less than a dozen students to almost 200. It's moved from a church basement and a few other temporary locations to a three-and-a-half-acre campus on the Hillsborough River in 2010.
"It has been exactly what we are called, community stepping stones," said teacher/mentor Lakeema Matthew, 24, who began as a student there when she was 14. "It's been stepping stones, the way it's evolved and gotten bigger. It's exciting to be a part of it."
The show at HCC called "Beautiful Beasties," and another show done by children ages 6-12 called "THINK eARTh," on display at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, are part of its Science=Art program. The program uses both disciplines to teach kids about recycling and preserving the environment.
In the past few years, the organization has increased the programs it offers for teens, including job training and computer skills. Teens work as student assistants. They help at the campus and exhibits. They learn about art, but also about responsibility and real-life skills like getting up for work in the morning and how to fill out a timecard.
This year, Tampa philanthropist Dr. Kiran Patel also donated funding to the organization for laptops and campus-wide Wi-Fi. None of the teens had computers at home, said Sigrid Tidmore, who became executive director of Community Stepping Stones in 2010.
"How do you compete?" Tidmore said. "How do you get out of poverty if you're not even competent with computers?"
Now the nonprofit computer training facility Computer Mentors sends someone to the campus once a week to teach the students basic computer skills, and they can earn a refurbished desktop computer for their homes. Community Stepping Stones has started teaching them Photoshop, digital photography and content development, and plans to add web development in 2014.
It's a mix of practical skills and creative thinking meant to give some stability to kids whose lives sometimes aren't that stable.
"If you're not eating well, if there's chaos in your life, going to school and trying to compete academically doesn't work," Tidmore said.
They use visual arts as a pathway to help the students gain academic, social and job prep skills in an approach called arts integrated programming, Tidmore said. Programs like Science=Art get both sides of their brains — the left, analytical side and the more creative right side — working together.
The teens who worked on "Beautiful Beasties" took classes with Dr. Bridgette Froeschke, a microbiologist and oceanographer at the USF Florida Center for Community Design & Research.
They went to beaches, took water samples and studied them in the labs at the University of Tampa. They used scientific pictures of different types of plankton from the classes to create the sculptures.
Student assistant Alonzo Jackson, 17, helped pick out smaller sculptures to hang from the ceiling at the gallery. He helps install artwork, touches up paint, carries things to Tidmore's car, and whatever else they need him to do.
The Blake High School senior started taking classes at Community Stepping Stones a few years ago.
"It's a good mixture of race, culture, everything," he said. "It's a really rejuvenating, spiritual place for me. I feel ready to relax and do some art."
Jackson's excitement about the "Beautiful Beasties" reflects what he's gained from the program. The self-described "21st century hippie" hopes people enjoy the artwork, but take something away from it, too.
"I want them to understand the purpose of why we do this. We don't do it just for a show, we do it to trigger people's minds," Jackson said. "All this plastic could have been floating in the ocean."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2453.