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SHACK Looking For Creative Ways To Continue Into The Summer

Photo: Kendra Bobowick

Wendy Leahy Mitchell, Newtown High Class of ‘87 and founder/director of The SHACK (The Sandy Hook Arts Center for Kids), is hoping a combination of direct public support, grants, nominal fees for activities, and strategic fundraising will keep her cozy little refuge for those still feeling the effects of 12/14 available for the community.  A fundraiser on April 28 will feature an auction of art created by local children as well as celebrities including Edie Falco and Regis Philbin.

Sandy Hook businesses are not the only enterprises continuing to feel traffic-dampening effects of the still painfully proximate incidents of 12/14. The founder of a cozy, not-for-profit arts center tucked into the cluster of buildings at 100 Church Hill Road is looking tentatively toward a summer full of arts camps, classes, demonstrations, and healing fun — hoping to see that vision through.

Wendy Leahy Mitchell, an educator by training, was a Sandy Hook School student during her elementary years. In the months leading up to the shootings, she had been trying to open an arts center in her hometown of Bethel.

Ms Mitchell came to Sandy Hook center last November and fell in love with a studio space that had just opened up across from the neighborhood laundromat.

“And then 12/14 happened,” she writes in an introductory letter on The Sandy Hook Art Center for Kids (SHACK) website. “I feel I was being prepared during those weeks before the tragedy so that we could get it up and running quickly — so we could open our doors and help quickly.”

With a certification in early childhood education and a decade of mentoring, The SHACK founder can help identify directly with families and peers in the school community, and apply the most proven types of activities to inspire educational, creative, and therapeutic benefits.

Ms Mitchell has tapped the talents of Matt D’Arrigo, a Hingham, Mass. native, who now runs the nonprofit A Reason To Survive (ARTS) in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Mr D’Arrigo was part of the team celebrating an Oscar Win for the year’s Best Documentary Short, Inocente.

Dr Cathy Malchiodi, the founder/director of Trauma Informed Practices, is also serving as an advisor.

John Parille, pastor of New Life Community Church in New Fairfield, serves as SHACK’s vice president; Kris Heyel is secretary; Deb McGrath, a Newtown mom and former Sandy Hook PTO treasurer, serves in that capacity for SHACK; Newtowners Michele Lyons Close, Kirsten Kellogg Tuz, and Jack Lynch are also serving on the organization’s board.

SHACK is also partnering with The Imagine Project of Brooklyn, N.Y., on some programming, Ms Mitchell said, and has gratefully benefited from the volunteers from the high school’s Creative and Cultural Arts Commission.

Since SHACK did not get its space donated, the organization’s founder is struggling to balance no-cost activities with some fee-based programs to help keep the doors open.

“A lot of people wonder why we are charging when there are so many donations and funds out there,” Ms Mitchell said. “But we didn’t really go out looking for money right away because we were focused on being here for the community.”

After weeks of staffing and hosting activities at SHACK, Ms Mitchell said her core volunteers are “simply burning out.”

“I really want to be in a position to hire a couple of program teachers by summer,” she added.

For the time being, she and her core supporters are committed to remaining open into the summer. She has received a $2,000 donation from United Way for therapeutic music programming, and has a big art show and auction planned for the final weekend in April.

“I hope our art show gives us the boost we need to get us into the summer,” she said. SHACK is planning its summer camps and programming now with an eye on the economy, and hopes parents will begin signing children up soon.

“We need the community to know we are here for them, and if someone can help us with some art supplies, a donation, or volunteering, no gesture is too small,” Ms Mitchell said. She would also consider donors who want to sponsor a week or month of SHACK operation.

“Our overhead is about $400 a week before any costs for supplies or programming is covered,” she said. Ms Mitchell also hopes more parents will sign up for the activities being planned for the coming weeks.

Beginning Monday, April 15, and continuing each day until Friday, April 19, Spring Break Camps will run from 9 am to noon and 1 to 4 pm.  There is a $40 suggested donation per session or $70 for the full day. Drumming, sculpture, puppet making, musical theater, improv, and art are all in the activities plan.

On Saturday, April 20, from 11 am to 1 pm, attendees can Sing & Sign with Ms Janine; or there is a free healing drum circle Sunday, April 21, with Lydia Smith. Percussion instruments will be provided or visitors can bring their own.

A Teen Karaoke Night is planned for Friday, April 26, from 7 to 9 pm under the tent — $5 suggested donation

On Saturday, April 27, from 11 am to 4 pm, The Sandy Hook Organization for Prosperity’s “Spring Fling” Block Party will be in progress and open to the public. SHACK plans to be represented during the event.

From 10 am to 4 pm that day The SHACK will also have a booth at the Sixth Annual Newtown Earth Day Festival at Newtown Middle School, where kids can make recycled art projects out of found objects.

Then, from 7 to 9 pm it’s Open Mic Night under the tent. Bring a guitar, instrument of voice and jam under the tent ($10 suggested donation).

The benefit “Visions of Tomorrow” Art Show & Auction is Sunday, April 28, with complimentary hors d'oeuvres provided by Sandy Hook Deli and Sandy Hook Wine & Liquor. Sandy Hook students, Newtown High School Creative Cultural Arts Council students, retired State Senator Joseph Lieberman, Regis Philbin, Edie Falco, and other celebrities are donating artwork.

Anyone who cannot attend, but wishes to make a direct donation to SHACK may do so by visiting www.rally.org/sandyhookartscenterforkids.

The Newtown Bee regularly posts updates, in print and online, of new programs that have been added to The SHACK schedule. The arts center also maintains a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and a website at SandyHookArtsCenter.org. Ms Mitchell can also be contacted by calling 203-304-9555 or sending email to SandyHookArtsCenter@gmail.com.

The SHACK is at 100 Church Hill Road, Suite 104, in the space formerly occupied by life's a peach.

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