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Ronna Metcalf Helms Cultural Arts Program for Adults

Life Enrichment Center is a 'very large extended family' to its executive director

Ronna Metcalf's love of art shines through at the Life Enrichment Center in Forest Hills.

Throughout the center, the walls showcase beautiful framed student artwork that the executive director shows off proudly, calling the talents her "extended family members."

She boasts of their accomplishments, too.

“We currently have 90 paintings at the Florida State Fair,” Metcalf said. "We took home 28 ribbons last year.”

After a successful career as a licensed contractor in commercial construction, Metcalf returned to college to USF and received a degree in Gerontology. After working in the area Agency for Aging for several years, she answered a newspaper ad about 12 years ago and became the Center’s fourth executive director since its opening 32 years ago.

“Four directors in 32 years says lot about what a wonderful place this is,” said Metcalf. “The teachers and staff are here because we really believe in what we are doing and have a passion for it. That’s what makes our classes so outstanding – the quality of our teachers.”

Metcalf said her instructors bring out the best in people who want to try new things. That ranges from classes in pastels, acrylics and oils and non-art related things like knitting.

“That’s what we are all about,” she said. “Keep people active and engaged. Everything is social in addition to the classes and the learning experiences. It’s like a very, very large extended family.”

Under Metcalf’s leadership, the Center has been recognized nationally and internationally for their hands-on approach to the arts for adults.

“There isn’t anything like this in all of the Tampa Bay area. And we are one of a few organizations like this in the country,” said Metcalf.  “I try to bring in innovative, new types of things for adults like a modern dance company, in partnership with the Arts Council, that’s specifically for older adults. I am also looking to start a theater group.”  

In 2011, the Center was selected as one of 20 non-profits nationwide to be recognized in a Culture Connects All report, a MetLife Foundation and Partners for Livable Communities publication.

“We were featured as a best practice for a hands-on participatory cultural arts program,” she said and pointed to a framed document, “We received a Certificate of Commendation from the Board of County Commissioners for this.”

She consistently steered the conversation away from her personal success and toward the Center’s. The love and pride for her job was clearly displayed on her face as talked about her role there.

“I do whatever is needed – you name it. It’s just Carol (Probst, office assistant) and I,” she said. “I do fundraising and press releases, write grants, keep in touch with grantors, sponsors, and funders.”

Though Metcalf claims the secret to the Center’s success is its uniqueness to the Bay area, Probst claims it is Metcalf.

“Ronna is very compassionate about what she does here for the Center,” said Probst. “It’s a goal for her to provide special and unique activities.  She’s proactive. It’s important for her to see that people are improving their lives by having this place, by being creative. She’s very good with people.  Not a stranger walks through the door.  She’s always upbeat and chipper and wonderful to work with.”

Although most members are 50 and over, Metcalf said she has had some young adults join in classes that range from art and modern dance to tai chi and writing.

“It’s an unusual and special place,” she said. “For many years, we’ve had satellite classes at MOSI and Aston Gardens. I work closely with USF and UT, so we have intergenerational experiences here and that’s always wonderful.”

One such experience partnered USF honors gerontology students and Center seniors. About a dozen USF students worked one-on-one with Center members, and the group worked on a collaborative art piece.

“It’s so funny," said Metcalf.  "All of the really upbeat and happy things are by the older adults who come here and all of the angst came from the students.”

Metcalf said that seeing people accomplish things later in their lives that they always wanted to do was one of the perks of her job.

“They raised their family, they worked, did all of things they were supposed to, and now it’s their turn,” said Metcalf. “I see a lot of freedom in growing older. When you are younger, you always worry about what you look like, who’s looking at you, do you look silly if you’re dancing? You’re always conscious of that."

But, Metcalf says, age changes that.

"When you’re older, you just gain a freedom that I never see in a younger person," she said. "If they want to dance and they’ve never done modern dance before, they’ll try it, and if they enjoy it, they’ll just keep doing it. It’s the same with all of the other classes. It’s hugely rewarding to see someone in their seventies or eighties sell their first painting. That is a thrill and I’ve seen it numerous times here.”

Her favorite part of being the Center’s executive director was easy to predict.

“The people – the people are the best part of the Life Enrichment Center,” said Metcalf. “We are a magnet for good. Good people come here. They’re still growing, learning and doing. They’re still enjoying life and that’s what keeps you young. ”

To learn more about the Life Enrichment Center, visit www.lifeenrichmenttampa.org.

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