Our region abounds with opportunities to explore culture, nature and art. But many low income families never have the opportunity to experience and learn from the community’s rich resources.
That’s why several years ago, as the Community Foundation of Sarasota County focused on supporting families across multiple generations, it was important to help develop and expand initiatives to open the doors of many of the area’s educational attractions to children and their parents or guardians who might not otherwise have the means to visit them.
A prime example is The Ringling’s “Where Everyone Belongs” (WEB) program, first piloted in 2016 and launched publicly in 2017, which offers 800 free family-level museum memberships to at-risk families over four years. Parents are welcomed to the museum and assisted in making the most of their family’s visits. To identify families for the program, The Ringling works with many non-profit groups including Easter Seals: Project Rainbow/Kids Night Out, a respite program for caregivers of disabled children; Forty Carrots: Partners in Play, a free parenting skills program at local libraries; Visible Men Academy, a Bradenton Title I charter school; and Harvest House: Home Again, a program for families transitioning out of homelessness.
Ana Juarez, Barancik Community Engagement Fellow, presents art enrichment projects at the nonprofit locations and offers free museum memberships to participating families thanks to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Those families are invited to the museum for programs that provide educational tools for visiting the museum, ensuring an enriching parent-child museum experience.
“The program’s main focus is to give underrepresented families a chance to discover their state art museum,” says Juarez. “For a lot of the families, it is the first time they have stepped foot into any art museum, period.” As a result, a key goal is to make families feel comfortable so they will keep coming back. “We strive to make them feel welcome and let them know it is a space for them where they can be safe and learn something new in a fun, exciting way,” Juarez says.
The program’s two-generation approach is key. “Engaging both the child and the caregiver in the learning process is vitally important to break that poverty cycle,” she adds.
The Ringling hopes WEB will be a model for cultural institutions nationwide, so it is focusing on data collection to demonstrate its effectiveness. The data tracks how often each family visits the museum over the course of a year, what programs they attend and surveys the parents’ comfort level with museums and knowledge of engagement strategies before and after they participate.
The Community Foundation also provided funding to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens to pilot its Family Togetherness Program in 2017. The Gardens welcomed 1,200 children and parents who received free admission to family-friendly events that first year. Designed to give children from Title I schools and their families a chance to immerse themselves in nature, this year the program expanded thanks to additional Foundation funding. It offers complimentary entry to several family-friendly events including Spooktacular, held in October; Lights in Bloom, the Gardens’ popular nighttime holiday event; and Family Saturdays in Paradise, which features outdoor children’s art activities during the Gaugin: Voyage to Paradise exhibition.
The families are identified by school administrators and nonprofit organizations including Girls Inc., Unidos Now, Visible Men Academy and Brotherhood of Men. Additional funding for Family Togetherness is provided by Tervis and Michael and Marcy Klein.
To gift the experience of live theater in a family-friendly environment, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County works with Asolo Repertory Theatre in support of its Family Days program, which offers discounted tickets for matinee performances of full-productions both in summer and during holiday break. A focus of Asolo Rep’s board, the performances have included “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Jungle Book.” In addition to special funds dedicated by the Asolo’s board of directors, funding for Family Programs at Asolo Rep is provided in part by Publix Super Markets Charities and The Koski Family Foundation.
Another avenue for family enrichment is EdExploreSRQ, which aims to enable all Sarasota County schoolchildren to engage with the area’s arts, cultural, and science institutions by making their educational opportunities easy to find on one website.
Launched in 2011, EdExploreSRQ is best known for helping teachers identify and fund field trips and in-classroom presentations that relate directly to their curriculum and state educational benchmarks. For students, such experiential learning motivates them to learn, helps them understand and apply concepts and creates new interests. The free website provides information on more than 250 explorations available from nearly 70 organizations and teaching artists, with grants available to cover costs.
EdExploreSRQ also helps parents enrich their children’s lives and enhance their education. Parents can find information about active learning experiences available at local museums, theaters, performing arts and science venues, and parks, as well as intellectually-stimulating summer camps and kid-friendly activities.
To encourage that, EdExploreSRQ is promoted in print and online newsletters sent to parents, and younger students get an “I’m an EdExplorer” sticker to wear on explorations, which organizers hope will prompt questions from parents and encourage them to find out more.
EdExploreSRQ is a partnership between the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, The Patterson Foundation, the Science & Environment Council of Southwest Florida, the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, and Sarasota County Schools. Visit EdExploreSRQ.com to learn more.