Community Stepping Stones

Sigrid Tidmore and Robert Rorebeck along with founder Ed Ross and Kathleen McCabe are the leadership team behind Community Stepping Stones, a non-profit learning center that uses art to inspire, educate and prepare at-risk youth to become successful adults.   Through art they are helping kids to use their natural talents to lead healthy and prosperous lives.  Photographed on the campus of Community Stepping Stones in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa.

Where are each of you from and when did you move to Tampa Bay?  Sigrid:  I’ve lived all over the world, but for the last 35 years I’ve had a home and business in Tampa.  Robert:  I am a second-generation Tampa native and except for going off to military school and college, I’ve lived here all my life.  My mother still lives in the house Dad bought in September 1951, I was born a month later.

What is Community Stepping Stones?  CSS is a non-profit learning center.  We are an after-school program for at-risk teens.  We use an arts and science curriculum to inspire, educate and prepare them to develop their skills and talents and become successful adults. 

Give us a little history of this incredible site.  CSS is in Sulphur Springs in Mann-Wagnon Park. A century ago this was a fish camp. Some of the original buildings are still there. When the Mann Wagnon family donated the camp to the County in the 1960s, it was used for the Museum of Natural History (which moved out and became MOSI 10 years later.) After that, the County Parks and Recreation Dept. was housed here until 2010. Thanks to the Arts Council and Linda Saul-Sena’s efforts, the property was made available to our program.

You get lots of natural visitors.  What might show up at CSS on any given day?   As the sun comes up, herons, egrets and ducks start their day, the fish jump and turtles crawl out to lay eggs and warm up on the banks. They are joined by five and even ten-foot alligators.  A frequent sound is the tap-tap-tap of Pileated Woodpeckers.  After dark Great Horned owls hoot it up and the opossums and raccoons make their rounds.  Since the campus sits at the upper reaches of the Tampa Bay estuary, we see dolphin and we even have a family of six manatees that visit regularly during the cooler months!

 CSS is about much more than just teaching someone how to paint.  Give us an example of how you connect art with science, social justice and solving real world problems.  Sulphur Springs is Hillsborough County’s most economically challenged community.  The at-risk youth in this community frequently suffer from extraordinary stress that is counterproductive to their ability to learn. We use visual art exercises to open up critical thinking and get them to think about their academic subjects in a different way. For instance, when they use their art to explore biology, young minds often discover values and applications of scientific principles on their own. Currently, we’re preparing an art exhibition about phytoplankton – a subject none of the kids understood 6 months ago – but they had to learn about ecology, and photosynthesis and global warming during the research process to make the fantastical sculptures of microbes we are featuring.

Tell us about Murals2Go.  M2G is a social enterprise of CSS. Originally we started doing murals as a way to earn income to support our programs. As time went on, we realized it also gave emerging young artists an opportunity for job training. The murals also give us a vehicle to explore social justice issues that need to be expressed in our communities if they are to heal and grow. This year, our design team trained for a week with the Philadelphia Mural Arts program. That city maintains over 2000 murals and they are on leading edge of mural technology. We see a very bright future for our mural painting enterprise.

Full of history, great old buildings and natural beauty Sulphur Springs is hidden right in the middle of the city. Besides CSS what else could the urban explorer discover in the neighborhood?  The Sulphur Springs water tower is a well-known landmark a little down the river from us. It marks the location of the original spring. The City is currently developing a park around it where concerts and other neighborhood events occur. To the east of us is Rowlette Park where CSS has two major murals on the racquetball courts.  The Sulphur Springs pool has been recently renovated.  There are lots of great old buildings like the Springs Theatre waiting to be rediscovered.

Put a face on the program.  Tell us a success story.  Lakeema Matthew recently graduated from HCC and is now getting her BA at USF. She’s a product of this neighborhood. Almost 10 years ago, she ran into Ed Ross, CSS’ founder, and started attending his art classes. With instruction and mentoring, she realized she could better her life by pursuing an education. Today she teaches our Photoshop classes, is our most experienced muralist and a valued member of our organizational team. Art education helped Lakeema make valuable personal choices that made her the powerful, creative person she is today.

What’s next?  Sigrid: Thanks to a new contract with the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, early this year CSS began outreach art classes for younger at-risk children (ages 6-12) at a number of Tampa Housing Authority locations. It has been exceptionally well received, and now we’re teaching over 150 kids every week. With the reduction of art in schools there’s a real need to bring art education to community programs – and we think this will be our largest area of growth in the coming years.  Robert: We are starting a video production project to teach students the artistic and technical skills of planning, recording, and editing motion pictures that can then be linked to social media.

When your not at CSS where might we find you hanging out?  Sigrid: at my personal studio doing my own artwork. I’m a professional book illustrator and I have several projects underway.  Robert: Wherever good coffee is being served! Or, most likely working on volunteer projects promoting sustainability and the arts.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?  Sigrid;  for some time now, I’ve been spending several weeks a year at my “other” studio in Ecuador. I’ve been painting a series of Galapagos canvases and other beautiful environments I find south of the border. Of course, the other attraction is that my two sons are raising their families there!  Robert: I have a BA in Fine Art Cinematography, an AS in Commercial Art, and a 23-year career in environmental science.

Name three things you would miss if you left Tampa Bay.  Sigrid: Friends, galleries and Whole Foods…and of course Community Stepping Stones.  Robert:  My friends and family, the beaches and driving down Bayshore.

After reading this people are going to want to get involved.  What’s the best way to do that?  The best way is to contact us through our website.  We are happy to give tours and show people what we are doing.