UF team spends spring break using arts to deliver health messages to beleaguered rural coastal community

March 9, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Instead of spending spring break on a cruise or ski trip, some University of Florida College of Fine Arts students are helping residents in rural communities along the Gulf of Mexico where the oyster-harvesting industry has been hurt by the cold winter.

In February, the USDA declared Franklin County an agricultural disaster area, less than two weeks after Franklin County commissioners declared a local state of emergency. Due to the freezing weather of the past months and closings of the Apalachicola Bay due to flooding upriver, many seafood workers, particularly oyster harvesters, are out of work and facing hardships. Without work, many of these workers and their families have lost income, their utilities or their homes. According to a report from Big Bend Community Organizations Active in Disaster, between 1,000 and 1,300 families are suffering financially because of closings in Apalachicola Bay. An effort called BayAid was established to address area emergency needs and is working with the UF group of faculty, staff and students.

The UF project is called AIM for the Panhandle and the team is led by Jill Sonke, professor of theatre and dance and director of the UF Center for the Arts in Healthcare, a program operated within the university’s College of Fine Arts.

AIM for the Panhandle will work directly with workers at seafood broker houses, providing health screenings and education while collecting oral histories and engaging residents in community art projects with health care messages, including the construction of a mural. The group has assembled toiletry and art supply kits to distribute to affected families. Students were required to read local books about Franklin County, which were purchased at the Downtown Bookstore in Franklin County.

“I am excited to be a part of this project because experiential learning always impacts me much more deeply than merely words on the pages of a book,” said Shamar Brown, a graduate digital arts and sciences student at UF. ”Though we will be going to offer help in these hard times, I feel that I will learn much more from the residents in the end.”

AIM for the Panhandle is a multiyear project, supported by the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment of the Arts, designed to create a working model for arts in health care programs in rural communities.