Story By Deb Flessner | Photos By Lisa Burns
A metaphoric bridge intended to span and embrace the differences between young students became a literal one, as The Friendship Bridge was officially dedicated on the grounds of Oak Park and Lakeview Elementary schools.
The two side-by-side Sarasota County schools have always had a mostly unused bridge between them. Over the years, it had fallen into neglect and was pretty much forgotten—until Brenda Smoak, National Very Special Arts (VSA) Teaching Artist Fellow and Teaching Artist with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, stepped in.
The program "Building Bridges between the School and Community" was funded by a John F. Kennedy Center VSA/MetLife Foundation grant, Smoak said.
"Sarasota was one of the cities chosen by the Kennedy Center and the grant went to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. I was lucky enough to be asked to work with Van Wezel to meet the grant stipulations: to integrate students living with disabilities with students who were not disabled to work side by side on an art project," Smoak said. "The grant also afforded 400 students at Oak Park and Lakeview the opportunity to see two live school-time performances at Van Wezel.
"We guided the students through building the waterfalls and painting the bridge and we integrated math, science, language arts, 21st Century Life Skills and anti-bullying into the process. This project builds self-esteem, school pride, and changes lives. We are grateful to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for choosing us and we look forward to bringing this project to other schools and organizations."
The parts of the project involving the bridge and the waterfalls were led by Smoak, whom was contracted by the Van Wezel to work with the Oak Park and Lakeview students. Smoak’s team included professional waterfall and pond artisans and Bradenton Patch bloggers in Myakka, and teaching artist Krista McCampbell who specializes in mosaic artwork.