Many children of today’s rural South are denied exposure to the arts because they live in households where survival is the critical issue and the parent’s lack of cultural knowledge, coupled with their lack of financial resources, leaves these children void in visual art, drama, and music. Society’s normal expectation is for the schools to fill the gaps created by the home environment. This does occur in some cases; however, Alabama’s children are particularly handicapped by this expectation, as state funding is slightly less than $0.25 per child for arts education each year.
To address this need, Alexa Jones, as an 18-year old college freshman, began The Renaissance Foundation of Alabama, Inc, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing arts education in rural schools and communities. Jones believed that this foundation, by acquiring corporate and state grants and utilizing community volunteers, could make a difference in the lives of these forgotten children. As the Chairperson, she mobilized attorneys and accountants who, like her, donated their time to create a 501 (c)(3) IRS certified organization that could receive charitable donations.
In 1999 when the Foundation was created, it served two counties in Alabama and, with steady growth, in 2002 has thus far served eight counties in Alabama. Through Jones’s direction, the Foundation has provided a myriad of activities in these counties. Jones has taught art lessons in elementary schools, lobbied and secured funding to bring professional children’s theatre to rural areas, produced school plays, provided community art workshops for those children who were left home at spring break, and organized community musical concerts by recognized musician, thus offering all forms of arts exposure. These activities were possible because of her persistence in lobbying state agencies for funding, thus making her one of the youngest individuals to lobby these groups.
Although Jones has made more than 10,000 student contacts and raised tens of thousands of dollars for arts education, it is the impact of these activities on students that is important. As a direct result of her efforts, teachers have stated that after seeing their students enjoy the children’s theatre, they began to allow their students to present reports “in character” in the classroom. Not only did the children enjoy the dramatic outlet, but also the teachers noticed a noticeable difference in the children’s confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Jones’ s involvement with these students cannot be measured as her involvement with them naturally established her as a mentor. Her life has been changed forever as she struggled watching a gifted musician come to school with a rat-bitten hand, bitten as he slept. Another child confided in her that he must sleep under his bed at night to avoid the gang warfare outside his window. One teacher stated that Jones would never realize her impact on these children; for many of them it was the first time in their lives that anyone had taken an interest in them and cared enough to try to make a difference in their lives. Jones is the current Chairperson of the Renaissance Foundation of Alabama, Inc. and a junior at Birmingham-Southern College.