Eucrita Willis’ dream of bringing a performing arts program to the Laurel Boys and Girls Club has been an eight-year effort, delayed in part due to the birth of her twins and a stroke, but her goal is finally nearing fruition.
“Dance, music, theater and everything that falls under those categories. Visual arts, painting, drawing — everything in the arts genre. That’s the plan,” she said.
The Boys and Girls Club has many sports programs, Willis said, “but there are other kids who want to do something other than sports, so I thought, let’s make it not just a sports-oriented facility, but also performing arts.”
Boys and Girls Clubs often offer nonathletic activities, said club president Level Brown, but said that due to lack of funding, it has to rely on volunteers, many of whom have other jobs.
Willis, 42, is putting the finishing touches on the performing arts room, a former storage area that has been remodeled as a dance room. A music lab is being developed in a side room and a performing arts afterschool program is slated for the fall, Willis said.
Willis, a single mother of three, said she has spent $5,000 of her own money on painting, mirrors and the dance floor, with volunteers doing the labor.
“That’s part of why it took me so long. I had to buy one thing at a time, buy a couple gallons of paint here and there,” said Willis, who graduated from Bowie State University in 1993 with a dual major in criminal justice and performing arts.
Willis currently works as a substitute teacher.
Willis said life also put the plan on hold for a few years, first with the birth of her twin daughters in 2008, and then a stroke one year later that briefly left her paralyzed.
“It was totally devastating,” Willis said. “For a time, I couldn’t even talk. I had to go through rehabilitation.”
Willis said it took her about two years of therapy to recover full mobility.
In 2005, Willis — who spent several years touring as a dancer, vocalist, actress and choreographer — said she began considering creating a performing arts program at the Laurel club.
Willis said she grew up in the Laurel-Beltsville area and wanted to give back to the community where she grew up and give children a chance to experience the arts.
“This is my passion, this is what I really believe in,” Willis said.
Brown said the arts program is a welcome addition for the more than 4,000 children that participated in Boys and Girls Club activities last year.
“It actually fills a niche,” Brown said. “A lot of kids don’t do sports, and this program helps us provide something for everyone.”
Adrian Rousseau, the club’s athletic director and mentor director, said many of the children would not otherwise be able to participate in the arts due to the high costs of commercial dance and performing arts programs.
“I’m just glad she chose this facility. It means a lot to us,” Rousseau said.
The Boys and Girls Club charges fees for its programs, “but no kid is turned away because of economics,” Brown said, adding that the club provides payment plans, a sliding scale and waivers for low-income families.
Willis said she has seen public schools cutting their performing arts budgets, and hopes her program will help fill the gap.
“The performance world is an expensive world and we’re trying to make it affordable to everyone,” Willis said.