By Erika Webb
The annual Youth Celebration of the Arts was back at Gemini Springs this year.
"Where it belongs," said Gateway Center for the Arts CEO and director Sandra Wilson.
Youth Celebration of the Arts is a unique festival that showcases the visual and performing arts for Volusia County youth. This year's theme was "Viva Florida 500" in conjunction with the statewide celebration of Florida's 500th "birthday."
Now in its 12th year, the celebration has grown, moved, moved again and changed over time.
Late in the afternoon the park remained a sea of people. Creativity was the main course at table after table, where volunteers oversaw kids of all ages applying glitter and paint to egg cartons and making elaborate head gear out of paper grocery bags, or just stopping by to freestyle with magic marker and paper. Finger painted masterpieces, affixed with clothespins to a line strung above the fence, dried in the cool breeze.
Area businesses and organizations set up tables and booths along the winding paths, handing out food samples, demonstrating services and displaying wisdom and wares.
Jamie Potter, 23 of DeLand, hadn't had a day off in a week. She'd been working double shifts at a DeLand restaurant and had to be back for her second that day in a couple of hours. A quick shoulder massage from Adkore Chiropractic revived her on the spot.
Musicians and dancers entertained on the enormous stage while tireless young hula-hoop experts amazed the crowd, barely moving yet managing to stay encircled mid-torso by the colorful rings for surprisingly long periods of time.
In 2001 the Cultural Council awarded the Gateway Center for the Arts $1,000 to jumpstart the venture. Former Daytona Beach News Journal publisher Tippen Davidson donated $1,000 and Progress Energy donated $3,000, Ms. Wilson said.
With $5,000 and 4,000 attendees the first year was more successful than organizers could have imagined.
"We were so excited when the park filled with people," she said. "I remember tearing up walking with my assistant at the time, Aileen McRae, around the park and seeing all the excitement."
Though the event has grown each year -- in support, activities and attendance -- Ms. Wilson said fewer teachers have brought student artwork for exhibit, that in the earlier years school orchestra participants were larger, and more public school dance and drama groups performed.
"In the earlier years of the celebration there seemed to be more participation from public schools," Ms. Wilson said. "Chorus groups were large. One group I remember had 60 students and we had to get risers and six mikes for them."
"The talent is still as good as ever, just smaller numbers in each group," she added.
Increased numbers of private choral and dance groups, both in and outside of, public schools, in addition to private school individuals and organizations have joined the roster in recent years.
One of the private student groups, "Those Guys," is a jazz ensemble. Its members attend University High School in Orange City.
Volusia County Schools Performing Arts Specialist, Dr. Monte Musgrave said he thinks the Youth Celebration of the Arts is "a terrific event," and he encourages teachers to participate.
This time of year, he said, especially with regard to middle and high schools, participation may be hampered by scheduling conflicts.
"There are just so many school-related events going on," Dr. Musgrave said. "The high school bands and high school chorus had their district evaluations this weekend, but I think the elementary schools generally have a freer schedule this time of year."
Ivy Hawn Charter School of the Arts, Deltona High School, Sunrise Elementary, Forest Lake Elementary, University High School, Chisholm Elementary, New Smyrna Beach High School, Debary Elementary, Enterprise Elementary all were featured at this year's event.
Suzi Preston, K-12 Visual Arts Specialist for Volusia County Schools agreed it's the time of the year when things are very busy in the public school art world.
"Timing is probably what it's all about," Ms. Preston said "This is the end of the marking period. Volusia Students Create is getting ready for the opening of the 41st annual exhibit for K-12, which will open at Gateway on March 24. There are a lot of things going on in March. One year they had (Youth Celebration) in April and I think it was a little easier."
Leah Winstanley, a home-schooled high-school student, was emcee.
Leah is a singer and has been on stage since the age of seven. She has performed at Universal Studios, Disney World, the White House and Carnegie Hall.
"I'm thrilled to be back hosting Gateway's Youth Celebration of the Arts," Leah said. "My first experience at Gateway was playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I really enjoyed it and wanted to thank them."
Pine Ridge High School science teachers Joy Stoops and Linda Gowan helped kids make pine cone bird feeders, sea shell necklaces and simulated tornadoes using two-liter bottles and colored liquid.
Ms. Stoops, who teaches 10th grade physical science, said this was her second year participating in the event. She called Youth Celebration of the Arts "wonderful for the community and amazing for the kids."
A passionate teacher, determined to make science fun, Ms. Stoops said without hands-on demonstrations and finding fun ways to engage students she will lose their attention. That's a risk she is never willing to take.
She said the celebration provides an opportunity for education, awareness and preservation of the environment.
Mike Brothers, from the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, was there to create awareness as well.
On his arm was a great horned owl named Bubo.
"We're here to let people know about some of the wildlife we have around here and to let people know about the Marine Science Center and the work we do with injured birds," Mr. Brothers said.
Bubo suffered a permanent shoulder injury four years ago and will never fly again, Mr. Brothers said.
The stately creature drew several admirers who wanted to reach out and touch him. Mr. Brothers had more than one opportunity to educate, advising adults and children that the bird's beak is used for dismembering small animals. Fingers are fair game.
Ms. Wilson said the celebration originally was at Gemini, but in 2010 and 2011, after building the Gateway Center for the Arts, the organization's "pockets were lean" so the event was parsed into two days and held at the center. Having sound and a stage reduced costs, but limited parking and building space restricted the number of invitees so last year the event returned to Gemini.
Before there was a center for the arts in Southwest Volusia there was a vision for them.
"It began with a conference with Volusia County teachers a few hundred feet from where Gateway Center is now standing," Ms. Wilson said. "The first consideration was to have the event at Gateway Park but enthusiastic support of the teachers made it clear that a much larger space would be needed. With the help of Pat Northey we were able to secure Gemini Springs Park. It was a beautiful venue."
The inaugural event proved just how much interest and talent in the area had been gone begging in culture's absence.
"The youth performances were outstanding. The big tent we rented was full of student art work and there were table after table of adults volunteers helping children paint, paste, and make art in different forms and mediums," she said.
Hundreds of volunteers including Gateway Center members, friends, teachers, students, organizations and businesses contribute time and effort to make the festival a success year after year, Ms. Wilson said.
"My favorite thing about the festival is watching the interaction of children with adults in a happy atmosphere," she said. "Youth Celebration of the Arts is an opportunity for parents, grandparents and children to play together doing art and being entertained by other youth. I'm a firm believer that a community that provides happy memories for kids will somehow tie the heart of the child to the community."