Framework to Empower

Credit to Adina Glenn of LIBN on 12/24/21
  Vocational training. Creative expression. Mental health services to help people achieve their full potential. Jobs as well as a food pantry. That’s all happening at the Rise in Spirit Community Arts Center in South Huntington. And while there’s an emphasis on services for people with autism and special needs, as well as for veterans, the center welcomes all Long Islanders who could benefit from their services. The center is a collaborative effort of the Spirit of Huntington Art Center, which aims through creative expression to transform lives, and Rise Life Services, a provider of residential and supported living environments for people of all abilities to achieve their full potential. With their partnership, the center is offering more “robust” programs, all of them led by working professionals than they could individually, according to the center’s website. “There’s going to be a variety of services provided under one roof, and it’s probably one of the first centers of this kind to provide this kind of variety,” Charles Evdos, executive director of Rise Life Services, said. Last week, the organizations announced their partnership, and their plans to acquire the building at 2 Melville Road North in South Huntington, once home of a public library. Evdos would not disclose the price of the building, but Rise in Spirit Community Arts Center is now embarking on a $1.76 million capital campaign to “share in preserving our building for students,” according to the center’s press materials. “You need both vocation and recreation,” Michael Kitakis, executive director of the Spirit of Huntington Art Center, said. “You can’t just have a place that just has a little bit of art. You want art, you want music, you want the whole community arts center coming together to offer all these great services.” Officials say this combination of services could prove to be a model to be replicated elsewhere. “Hopefully we can use it as a model to expand it around the rest of this state,” State Sen. Jim Gaughran said. The center’s leaders say it could serve as a national model as well. The Spirit of Huntington already streams courses to veterans’ groups, and adding the in-person component would be even more beneficial. That’s good news on Long Island, where Suffolk County is home to the largest veterans’ population in the state, and one of the largest in the country.
 “Assisting and helping veterans is how this facility can provide support to those who served us,” County Executive Steve Bellone said. “When they come home, it’s our obligation to serve them, and make sure they have what they need to come back into the community and be able to thrive for the rest of their lives.” In addition to providing vocational skills, the center will also bring new jobs to the region. “It’s going to provide 52 new jobs in Huntington,” Evdos said. “It will help the economy, help Huntington and help Long Island.” The center is hiring artists, musicians, job trainers and mental health counselors, he said. Kitakis said the center is also teaching digital art, “which can turn into careers.” “We’ve been able to take a model of a program that has been done at a college level and teach students that there are opportunities to actually make their dreams come true and get a job,” he said Through ArtWORKS, a vocational program, students learn digital art and graphic design and a path to employers seeking workers with media design skills. Students are matched with nonprofit clients to design logos, web sites, marketing materials and media messages.
  Meanwhile, with the ongoing concerns over mental health amid the COVID-19 crisis, experts say anxiety and depression are on the rise. “Depending on demand, we’ll be able to serve up to 1,000 people a month,” Evdos said of the mental health service component of the center, which will be offered on the building’s second floor. Evdos said that a food pantry would open in the next 12 months, adding that through Rise, there are already food pantries in Riverhead and Hampton Bays. There is also a truck that delivers food to older adults and with special needs, he said. North Shore Dance Center, a nonprofit, is already housed in the building and offers dance and movement classes to all abilities and ages. In development is a recording studio, and the center also offers music lessons. There are painting and ceramics classes. And the center will be selling student works through an online retail component, Evdos said. The breadth of services is needed now especially as the pandemic continues and as there are concerns over state funding and over housing costs, where adult children are living with their parents, Evdos said.
  “Instead of sitting at home, watching TV, they have the opportunity to improve their quality of life with the variety of services we’re providing,” Evdos said. Leaders of the two organizations said they saw a synergy between their efforts and decided to join forces to support Long Island’s diverse community. And within three months, the organization moved forward with the purchase of the building from the South Huntington School District, which according to Huntington Now, is looking to shed some of its properties. The Spirit of Huntington has come a long way since it was first founded in 2011 by Erich Preis, who began working with three students with special needs. The program now serves 250 a week, and is growing, Kitakis said. “Creative expression does transform lives – we see that every day here,” Kitakis said. “We’re so excited now to offer it to a whole group of people in the community.” “We are going to make a difference on Long Island,” Evdos said.
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