As the name implies, the Prodigy Cultural Arts program, begun in 2001 by the University Area Community Development Corporation, has proven to be a phenomenon.
It’s transformed the lives of thousands of at-risk youth ages 7 through 17 by teaching them self-worth, anger management and problem-solving skills through self-expression in the form visual and performing arts.
In 2014 alone, the program — which in the years since its founding has spread across eight counties in 45 locations — served 3,400 kids.
It’s considered to be one of the most successful programs in diverting youth from the juvenile justice system and as such, a large portion of its funding comes from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
In celebration of Prodigy’s 15 years of success, the UACDC recently held a musical festival on the grounds of the University Area Community Center at 14013 N. 22nd St. Tampa, making use of its new outdoor pavilion.
The event drew kids from various Prodigy sites, some of whom performed contemporary hip hop and urban dance routines while others presented themselves on the drums and by singing self-composed songs.
Still others demonstrated their artistic skills in the form of drawings and paintings, many of which were on display throughout the site.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, founding chairman of the UACDC board of directors and now chairman emeritus who helped get the Prodigy program started to improve the lives of people living in the surrounding low-income neighborhoods, was on hand to welcome the crowd.
“I encourage you to show a little love to our board members for all they’ve done and to Sarah (Combs, UACDC executive director and CEO) for all the wonderful things she has done,” Crist said.
Prodigy Director Mike Trepper also took to the mic to say a few words.
“The program is about more than just art,” he said. “It teaches kids life skills that will help them grow into successful adults.”
Combs, who, in her many years with the UACDC has watched the Prodigy program grow, was delighted by the turnout and the quality of the kids’ presentations.
She also was thrilled with the look of the recently completed pavilion.
“I have to say I’m a proud mama in that it’s wonderful to see all of this come together,” Combs said. “Having this pavilion will make this community better.”
Ten-year-old Crystal Evans, who takes part in the Prodigy program’s drumline and step team at the Freddie Solomon Community Center in Northwest Tampa and came to enjoy the celebration, was standing among a group of girls also involved in the program at the center.
“It’s good for me and it’s fun,” said Crystal, who like the others, goes five days a week after school to take part in Prodigy’s activities.
Her Prodigy buddy Amari Duke, also 10, concurred.
“It showed me how to have more discipline and helped me to make friends. But it’s mostly about having fun” she said.
Rebecca Thomas, coordinator for the Prodigy Moves program, picks up and delivers the youth to various sites in a van, which also serves as an eye-catching mobile advertisement.
“The most gratifying part about the program is the children,” she said. “At first, some of them don’t want to come, but then they don’t want to leave.”
Thomas also noted there are kids who at the beginning don’t know the first thing about dancing. But that obstacle quickly becomes a thing of the past once they get involved.
“They say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ or ‘I don’t want to do that,’ but now they can really move,” she said.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]