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Arts nonprofit grows with holistic youth development programs

Ashley Morales



Participants learn about saving, investing and credit during a financial literacy course, part of the Arts Conservatory for Teens program. Photos: Ashley Morales.

A St. Petersburg-based nonprofit known for its commitment to empowering young people through the arts is broadening its programming, with an eye on building up teens in preparation for a strong future.

Founded in 2012, Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT) has a mission of providing equitable access to high-level arts education for students. Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Tonya Ruble-Richter said while the nonprofit has long been known for its innovative and robust creative programming, ACT leaders have been working on strategically expanding their approach to youth development, taking a broader view of what it means to be a “healthy” young person.

“It was always part of the plan to incorporate entrepreneurship, financial literacy, mental health and wellness,” Ruble-Richter said. “[Co-founder] Alex Harris’s vision for ACT is that we would help build not just the creative workforce, but the economic side for our community. So we do that by building more responsible youth because then they grow and become more responsible adults.”

In addition to offering professional-led training and performance opportunities in music, theater, dance, film and art, ACT is now incorporating mental health services and financial literacy courses into its curriculum. Wednesday nights, before practicing their dance moves or monologue lines, nearly 20 students gather at the Arts Xchange in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District, around a projector screen and pull out their workbooks to learn about managing their money.

“I am an artist myself for about 25 years, and I also know that as a high school student, wanting to be on Broadway and wanting to do music, you see so much on television about what [artists] buy and what they can do. At that age, I was not thinking about savings accounts, checking accounts or how to balance a checkbook,” said Darnel Butler, Director of Programs and Curriculum at ACT. “This is important for them, even in the arts lane, because there are contracts that are going to be involved in their future. They’re going to have to hire managers and publicists, so there is so much that they need to know and not just say, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just leave it to this person.’ They need to know it for themselves, as well”

“Nobody teaches us this [in high school]. We just launch into life; they shoot us out of a cannon without any prep on how bank accounts work, or even how credit works and how credit can be used as a tool,” said  Olga Gonzalez, a Community Manager with JPMorgan Chase who’s currently leading a series of financial literacy workshops for ACT.

“The food that we have on our plates, the roof over our heads, it’s all tied to a financial transaction. In my home, we didn’t speak about money, and sadly, we learned through hard knocks, headaches and a lot of heartaches. We want to give this generation a leg up so they can be well-prepared to make these decisions and have tools they can leverage for a better future.”

The students are required to take the courses as part of their participation in the Arts Conservatory, but both nonprofit leaders and Gonzalez say they’re “hungry” for the information. At a recent class, Kay Davidson, a junior at Gibbs High School, was already asking for information on starting a Roth IRA.

“I feel like there are a lot of questions I can’t ask during school because we don’t have enough access to personal finance classes,” Kay told the Catalyst.

“They’re also helping us learn about saving money for the future, so we can prepare before we go to college or start a career,” added Darren Moss, a Gibbs sophomore in his second year at ACT. 

Some research shows as many as one in five teens lack basic financial literacy skills. The financial literacy courses Gonzalez teaches cover topics such as budgeting, saving, investing and understanding credit. With a mission to educate, empower and enrich the lives of creative teens, ACT’s expansion into holistic development programming is a natural progression of its efforts to foster healthy, productive and responsible citizens.

“This group really just blows me away. These kids are extremely sharp and they have very dynamic goals. You get the usual, ‘I’m saving for a car’ or a vacation, but there are several that have a longer-term vision, like thinking about education or saving for a home. Some were even talking about saving for retirement already,” Gonzalez said. “They’re definitely having fun; I could tell from their budgets that they’re allowing themselves some fun, but they’ve got bigger plans.”

In addition to classes in music, dancing, acting, film production, game coding and visual arts, Arts Conservatory for Teens offers creative youth a chance to learn mental health and financial literacy skills.

In addition to financial literacy, the teens are receiving care from a licensed mental health counselor. Butler said, in the hyper-connected age of social media, many young people are more aware than ever about the importance of maintaining their mental health and emotional well-being. 

“I’ve been a part of programs where it was all about the entertainment; it was only about your skill set, only about the talent, and in some kind of ways, it could seem like we were just pulling on their gifts and that was it,” Butler said. “The Arts Conservatory for Teens is all about making sure these kids are healthy from head to toe. Your talent is only going to get you so far and your gifts are only going to get you in so many doors. It’s important for them to understand that it’s not okay to just get on a stage if you’re feeling depressed. You can do so much more for yourself, for your family and for your loved ones if you are physically, spiritually and emotionally healthy.”

The expansion of programming into holistic youth health services is made possible through partnerships with local organizations, businesses and independent contractors. By leveraging these collaborations, ACT aims to provide comprehensive and expert-led support in these expanded programs, just as it has with its teaching artists who’ve lent their creative skills to ACT for more than 10 years.

Ruble-Richter said the success of this strategy is in the numbers: of the more than 14,000 kids who’ve participated in ACT since its inception, 100% have gone on to graduate high school and 90% have gone on to secondary education. 

“Teen suicide is higher now than it’s ever been, and we know with everything they are facing, it’s like the perfect storm right now for a really hard time in their lives,” Ruble-Richter emphasized. “So our lane at ACT is very distinct and it’s very different. We love the arts and we’re super passionate about it, but it goes a step further. We’re building the hope conscience, raising self-esteem and helping kids find a place where they feel like they belong.”

“It’s one thing to come in and watch these kids of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, denominations, all come together for this common goal. They’re positively critiquing each other and taking that critique. They laugh and joke, and have really formed their own community and family. It’s really eye-opening and refreshing because it’s like, ‘Wow, this can happen. This does exist.’

“We’re just a tiny piece of it. These kids are going out there every single day and living it,” Butler added. “It’s so awesome to see. It’s a sign of hope.”

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