MANSFIELD -- Debra Weaver has had two startling experiences that have changed her life and enabled her to do a better job as the educational director at the Mansfield Art Center.
Neither had anything to do with art. But, both connected her with the art center and ultimately helped her achieve the center’s goals.
One of Weaver’s life-changing experiences was three months spent helping residents in one of the most under-developed areas of Russia. The second was a car accident that nearly took her life.
The three month-long trips to Russia were part of her contract job with a community action program near Toledo. She describes the trips and the extreme poverty she witnessed as the most significant experience of her life. Residents there had no roads, no electricity and no hope. Since they were living in a dictatorship, they also had no expectation of government assistance.
“I have always wanted to be involved with helping under-served people,” Weaver said. “The Russia trips helped me understand what it really means to be under-served.”
The accident that nearly killed her took place on I-71 during a heavy rainstorm. She was living in Mansfield at the time while working for the community action agency in northwest Ohio. She was on her way to Columbus for a meeting. Her car was struck by a semi. She sustained serious injuries, including a crushed pelvis and a badly bruised brain.
Her recovery took many months and involved learning to walk and talk again. During that recovery, she made her first visit to the art center. She fell in love with the place, dabbled in sculpture and eventually became a volunteer. Her enjoyment continued and one thing led to another.
Her professional background, particularly her focus on helping the underserved, earned her the current role of education director at the art center. That role is to broaden the center’s reach into segments of the community it has not successfully served in the past.
She recognizes that being underserved in the U.S. is quite different from what she witnessed in Russia. But, she remains committed to helping people achieve more than they are accustomed to achieving.
A current example of the art center’s efforts to reach out to underserved local residents is the partnership it has developed with Mansfield in Bloom to create a large piece of outdoor sculpture for display in a special ‘island of color.'
The artwork will be designed, created and installed by a group of young men participating in the Student Achievement Leadership Training program (SALT). This program is part of the Urban Minority Alcohol and Drug Abuse Outreach program.
The goal of SALT is to teach young men good work habits and self-respect. SALT crews, led by supervisor Isaac David, have helped Mansfield in Bloom with planting, landscaping, mulching and other tasks for the past three years.
The plan calls for the sculpture to focus on honoring veterans. It will be installed an an ‘island of color’ flower bed at the five-way light in front of St. Luke’s church. The five-way intersection is where Park Avenue West, Bowman Street and Marion Avenue converge.
Weaver, who has worked with ceramic and metal sculpture for a number of years, will work with the SALT youths to design and build this piece of artwork. She said that all she knows at this point is that it will be tall, secure, stimulating and probably made from metal. She emphasized, however, the main function of the sculpture is to expose the SALT youths to art and expression.
Rev. Paul Lintern, who owns St. Luke’s church, agreed the focuses of the entire presentation will be to honor veterans and help the SALT youths. But he added the project will also create color and beauty for motorists passing along the western edge of the downtown.
He said the triangular point where the bed will be located has always been a focal point for Mansfielders. He said church members from past decades believed the point was once the responsibility of the city parks department.
Lintern himself has added poles to display colorful flags of all sorts during the seven years he has owned the church. Most of the flags carry a patriotic message, he said, adding he once flew flags from other countries that were the homes of visiting missionaries.
“We call it the Point of Freedom and we look at it as a gift to the community,” Lintern said.
The entire sculpture project is truly a community collaboration that includes, but goes beyond the art center. Veterans will assist SALT members in the creation of the bed, which will be designed by retired nursery owner David Bell.
Ongoing bed maintenance will be provided by members of a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Volunteers from Mansfield in Bloom and the Mansfield Men’s Garden Club. led by Jim Kulig, are handling coordination and communication.
Working on ways to help the under-served has been part of Weaver’s career goals since she spent 21 years in the Toledo Public Schools system. She said those years provided her a foundation. She worked at inner city schools as a special education teacher. Her responsibilities and impact broadened when she became a principal.
The next phase in the career of the Bowling Green native was a contracted position with the community action program called WSOS. The initials of the title stand for the counties served – Wood, Seneca, Ottawa and Sandusky. She helped residents of these counties, but this is the organization that also placed her in Russia. She worked five years with this group.
Both of her work experiences with the schools and community action program put her in contact with juvenile justice issues.
Weaver came to Mansfield eight years ago while still working in the Toledo area. Her first major task was to recover from the accident. She was still learning to walk again and credits the Grant Medical Center in Columbus with great care.
Weaver had 14 years of administrative experience, a deep interest in the art center and a commitment to help the under-served. Taking over the responsibility of running the center’s educational and outreach functions seemed natural.
“Now you can see why I am so excited about this opportunity to work with the SALT program on this outdoor art project,” Weaver said.
She added that success with this initial project will hopefully lead to sculptures in other islands of color across the community. She hinted an arboretum with labeled trees between the art center and discovery School may also be in the offing.
“The kids will learn about art, but they may also acquire an interest in a vocation such as landscape design,” Weaver said.
The goal is to expand their experiences and their minds.
Editor’s Note - Tom Brennan is the retired editor of the News Journal and chairman of the Mansfield in Bloom steering committee. If you are interested in volunteering to assist with MiB projects such as floral, landscaping, historic preservation, environmental or others, please contact Patrick clinage at 419-755-7234.