Turning Lives Around by Turning A Building Around
The campus that once housed Sue Bennett College in London, Kentucky has long been eyed as a valuable community asset, provided someone had the passion, energy and ability to revive it. With assistance from the Fletcher Group, that person appears to be Jason Dickerson who first started cleaning, painting and restoring the property’s three-story theatre building over a year and a half ago.
It Began With Music
A self-proclaimed “engineer by day and musician by night,” Dickerson will soon be inaugurating an exciting new multi-purpose facility called the Belle Bennett Center for the Arts. “This is all about bringing theater, music and art back to London–something I’m extremely passionate about. But it’s also about helping people on their journey to recovery.”
Lori Baier, the Fletcher Group’s Director of Employment Services, has been working closely with Dickerson for the past seven months in the hope that the facility will not only enable local people in recovery to express themselves but will also assist in the workforce training that can lead to successful careers in business management or the arts and entertainment industry.
Baier is also working with the Earamas Foundation in Estes Park, Colorado which has kindly donated high-quality musical equipment to two local recovery centers–the Hickory Hills Recovery Center in Knott County, Kentucky and the Sky Hope Recovery Center in Pulaski County, Kentucky. Residents from both centers are now collaborating with Dickerson to create a recording studio within the Belle Bennett Theater that will allow residents to learn valuable music production skills. The project is a perfect fit for Earamas founder Gary Clark who uses technology to improve health care equity, access, and outcomes “so that everyone has an equal opportunity to be as healthy as they can be.” As Clark says, “Everyone counts or no one counts. We can all make a difference.”
A Model For Others?
Dickerson and Baier share a similar passion. “We’re both excited by the idea of marrying the arts with recovery training,” says Baier. “As soon as I met Jason we started brainstorming about the many ways this project could benefit the community. I think that’s why it came together so quickly–because it’s such a natural fit for this community.”
“I hope this can become a model for others,” says Dickerson, “especially in communities where cultural and workforce training needs aren’t being met and there are valuable historic properties that aren’t being used.”
Seeing Is Believing
Of course, projects like this require tremendous amounts of work. Ironically, Dickerson attributes some of his success to not seeing things as clearly as he might have. “I went through some vision problems last year,” says Dickerson. “I had a detached retina in one eye and couldn’t see very well. Everyone was telling me, ‘Jason, this building’s in horrible shape’ and I was saying, ‘No, it’s not that bad.’ But after I had eye surgery and got my glasses, I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, maybe they’re right.’ Looking back now, I think now that my bad vision might have saved the project!”
Just the Beginning
Providing the community with a stage where theatrical, musical and artistic pursuits can be nurtured and performed is just the start, says Dickerson. It will also provide a beautiful venue for receptions and birthday parties while facilitating numerous educational activities for those in recovery.
“It will enable second-chance workers to learn how to manage, operate and maintain the building,” says Baier, adding that social enterprise projects like this one can have a tremendous impact. “Jason and I are already in contact with local groups that might be interested in collaborating, including the residents of a local recovery house,” says Baier. “The building also ties in perfectly with the recovery music programs and bands that I’ve been working with at local recovery centers.”
All In The Family
In fact, it was Baier’s niece, Holly Forbes, a recent star on the TV show The Voice, who performed at the building’s inaugural “soft opening.”
“We’re not 100% there yet,” says Dickerson, “but we wanted to show what we can do. Fortunately, we had an excellent turn-out and created a lot of community interest. Several city officials representing London’s tourist industry and other interests attended so I think the support will be even greater when have our official grand opening, perhaps around Christmas.”
So Many Benefits!
All the hard work seems to be panning out, says Dickerson. “When I started out, a lot of people couldn’t see any value in this. People looked at me like I was crazy. But after this past weekend, it seems everyone is really excited to see this historic landmark come back to life.”
A software engineer by trade, Dickerson admits his original interest was limited to opening a music studio and music school. But with Baier’s assistance, potential usage of the 686-seat theater has grown exponentially. The plans now include an art center in the basement where a pop-up art space and “maker-space” will allow community members to paint, create pottery and develop woodworking skills. A large kitchen could potentially be converted to commercial purposes, allowing people in recovery to receive culinary training and operate a small restaurant.
In Baier’s experience the workforce training and certifications that result can play a huge role in helping those in recovery find the meaningful employment needed for continued long-term recovery.
No Choice But To Help
Dickerson knows himself how important that can be, having seen members of his own family struggle with addiction. “I grew up in a community ravaged by drug use,” he says. “When I left to get an education, I thought I’d never return, but here I am. And when you’re surrounded by people in need, you have no choice but to lend a hand.”
The company Dickerson created to oversee the project is called “MADE180” with “MADE” standing for “Media, Arts, Development and Education” and “180” implying the kind of change the project can spur among people in recovery.
What It’s All About
“There’s nothing like this locally. We’re one of a kind. But what it’s really about is helping people in our local community. What’s great is that, by turning a building around, you can turn lives around at the same time.”