Every few seconds, the worn aluminum screen door creaks open and pops closed as a steady stream of giggling, chattering kids flows into the Lane House, an after-school arts center in Eureka Springs, Ark. Each slam of the door is music to Mary Jo Rose’s ears, her serious face breaking into a smile as two preteen girls show her their Halloween photos before they rush downstairs to a theater class.
In 1993, Rose, a former elementary schoolteacher, was working downtown when she noticed teenagers wandering the streets during school hours. When she talked to them, she learned that many were dropouts and homeschoolers who had nothing to do in the afternoons.
“I got the idea that the local kids should have a place to go and have something to do so they wouldn’t get into trouble,” Rose says. She shared her idea with the outreach committee from St. James Episcopal Church, and weeks later received the keys to the church’s two-story rectory house. Sixteen kids came through the door on that first day in September 1993, and 500 kids between the ages of 8 and 18 have passed through since then.
Her initial plan to give kids in this town of 2,400 a place to go after school has turned into a nationally recognized arts program that has received funding and recognition from the Arkansas Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We serve the under-served,” Rose says. “Eighty percent of our kids are from single-parent households below the poverty level.” Each day, she provides snacks and activities to kids who would normally go home to an empty house. Local actors teach ongoing theater, filmmaking, and drama classes and plan theater productions with the kids each year. Other professionals come in as part-time staff to teach such classes as tile-making, pottery, and writing. And mentoring programs, weekly community dinners, and summer arts camps also are part of the Lane House schedule.
“Kids need to have other adults in their community that they trust and talk to, especially in these last few years when we’ve seen so much violence and despair among teens,” Rose says. “After the Columbine experience, I felt so blessed to be here … the kids in this community know they have someone to talk to if they feel picked on or alienated.”
The programs are so successful that many former students come back to volunteer. Kerry Leigh Pittenger went from being a timid preteen to a gregarious theater pro and student representative on the organization’s board of directors.
“When I first came here, I was pretty shy. I practically hid behind Mary Jo’s leg,” Pittenger laughs. She took drama classes, then reluctantly stepped into the spotlight of the Lane House’s first theater production with a monologue from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. The tremendous audience response sparked her deep passion for theater; she can still recite that monologue in a high and confident voice.
Pittenger recently landed a small part in an independent Civil War film and plans to go to New York after graduation to pursue acting. But she knows she won’t stay away from the Lane House and Rose for long. “I always want to come back here, because I can chill out and be myself.”
To parents, the Lane House “can mean the difference between success and failure,” says Vicki Rose, who started as a volunteer and now is one of three staff members.
Vicki has more in common with Mary Jo than an unrelated last name—they also share a great love for children. “Kids sense a feeling of community here and they feel what it’s like to be in a family; a lot of them don’t have that experience at home.”
The Lane House is a family affair for Vicki. Her husband also volunteers, and her 13-year-old son, Sam, attends classes in clay tile, piano, and theater tech. And their two grown children have already gone through the program.
“My children are enriched creatively and culturally,” Vicki says, adding that the activities sometimes make a dramatic difference. “I’ve heard countless alumni come in years later and tell Mary Jo she saved their life.”