A metaphoric bridge intended to span and embrace the differences between young students became a literal one, as The Friendship Bridge was officially dedicated on the grounds of Oak Park and Lakeview Elementary schools.
The two side-by-side Sarasota County schools have always had a mostly unused bridge between them. Over the years, it had fallen into neglect and was pretty much forgotten—until Brenda Smoak, National Very Special Arts (VSA) Teaching Artist Fellow and Teaching Artist with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, stepped in.
“The students learned about each other and happily helped one another accomplish various tasks,” said Smoak, who is an occassional Patch contributor. “Having students work together like this at such a young age shows that all people are capable of contributing to the success of a project. It never ceases to amaze me what we can build together when we respect one another.”
Smoak's role is part of a Teaching Artist program where they collaborate with Sarasota County Schools, said Judy Levin, Artist and Residence Coordinator for the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota.
“This was put together with a separate grant that Brenda Smoak got," Levin said. "She is a Kennedy Center artist, certified in special arts, and it was a perfect match.”
The grant obtained from the John F. Kennedy Center was a VSA MetLife one entitled “Building Bridges in the School and Community”, and it was originally given to the Van Wezel. The stipulation was that it be used to integrate students living with disabilities alongside students who are not disabled in order to work together on a visual arts project.
Shelli Freeland Eddie, who works with Grants and Resource Development for the Van Wezel, said the grant money was used in several aspects of the project. There was the renovation and beautification of the bridge itself, one lovely waterfall and garden on each of the schools’ grounds and the ability for 400 students to attend two live educational performances at the Van Wezel.
“Our Schooltime Performances program brings schools to the Van Wezel to experience arts programs,” she said. “They teach math, language arts, science and teamwork—all Florida Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.”
The parts of the project involving the bridge and the waterfalls were led by Smoak, whom was contracted by the Van Wezel to work with the Oak Park and Lakeview students. Smoak’s team included professional waterfall and pond artisans and Bradenton Patch bloggers in Myakka, and teaching artist Krista McCampbell who specializes in mosaic artwork.
“Together with the students from both schools, we built two waterfalls, created a mosaic embellishment and painted a bridge,” Smoak said. “It was an amazing experience to work with these students and teachers.”
Art teachers from both schools guided the students in creating 60 mosaic tiles, which were installed on the bridge, and Oak Park students also made two mosaic welcome signs for the bridge entrances.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she was happy to see the results of the cooperative efforts between the students from both schools.
“This is what our community is all about, collaboration and integration,” she said. “This is what we all need to be doing, working together. And this why we’re all here today—we’re learning from our children.”
All of the adults who worked on the project said they realized how special the experience was for everyone involved. Besides the resulting beautiful artwork on the bridge and the waterfalls that were created, new friendships were forged between students who had not really had the opportunity to interact with each other in the past.
And that was more valuable than most anything.