For most of her young life, Meike Groh has used her art to make the world a better place. When she was a high school student in Zephyrhills, Florida, she read a story in the newspaper about Sunrise of Pasco County, a non-profit shelter that assists victims of domestic and sexual violence. She started by designing posters for the organization, and then later led art classes for the children of women staying at the shelter. “When the women had counseling sessions, their kids had nothing to do,” Groh said, “so they thought it would be nice to have a little arts-and-crafts session. It was fun.”
When Groh arrived at Ringling College of Art and Design in 2009 to study Computer Animation, she looked for ways to continue her volunteerism. She found no shortage of opportunities.
Recognized as one of the top art and design colleges in the world, Ringling College has also quietly earned a reputation for developing students who are deeply engaged with their community. In any given year, roughly 40 percent of Ringling students volunteer at least once and together they spend approximately 15,000 hours annually helping dozens of area non-profits and agencies. Florida Campus Compact, an organization that promotes civic engagement and service learning in higher education, named Ringling College of Art and Design as the state’s Most Engaged Campus in its category in 2018 and the College won a second-place Campus Community Partnership Award that same year.
Rachel Levey-Baker, director of student volunteerism and service learning, joined the College in 2003 through the federal government’s AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. At the time, Levey-Baker’s position was the only one at Ringling College strictly dedicated to volunteerism. Today, she leads a staff of three.
While many Ringling College students volunteer by using their art and design skills for good causes, there is no limit to the kinds of service projects Ringling students can undertake. In addition to artbased service, like creating murals for non-profits and contributing pieces of art for fundraisers, Ringling College volunteers have yanked out invasive species, cleaned up polluted beaches and waterways, registered first-time voters, and pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity.
“Ringling is very focused on educating the whole student,” said Levey-Baker. “We know that valuable learning can happen outside the classroom and that our students have all kinds of talents beyond art that they can share with the community,” she said.
Groh started her volunteer work at Ringling by assisting with a project that benefited a local non-profit skatepark and later joined the school’s Youth Experiencing Art (YEA) program. Created in 2002 by John and Robin Sullivan, the YEA program pairs roughly 40-50 Ringling College students with teachers who work together over the course of a school year to create and lead projects that integrate arts into all subjects in public schools.
Volunteering improves the lives of those directly impacted by the service, but it also benefits the person serving. It challenges and inspires Ringling College students and makes them better artists. Groh said that while her school projects were often highly regimented, working with kids in YEA gave her the freedom to design in a more unrestricted fashion.
That giving spirit cultivated through service while at Ringling College stays with the students long after they graduate. While at Ringling, Frank Melton volunteered for two years with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, teaching art lessons to kids after school. After he graduated with an Illustration degree in 1995, he stayed involved, offering art therapy lessons at a Veterans Affairs hospital. “I feel it’s important that we as artists, in every form and at every level, give back in some way,” Melton said.
Since leaving Ringling in 2013, Groh has continued to volunteer. Now a professional animator in St. Petersburg, she recently completed a mentorship with a girl with special needs. Together, the two of them came up with a story for a one-minute animated film, painstakingly completed the clip, and then displayed it as part of a gallery show. “It was 100 percent her characters, with her story idea,” Groh said. “I just served as her guide.”
By Cooper Levey-Baker
Photography By Karen Arango