There’s a small, one-level building with a wide-open door tucked away behind a shopping center off 49th Street South, and it was rocking on Sunday, November 17, to celebrate the achievements of local non-profit ProjectFREE. The nonprofit’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and the house band was just one way to highlight the work being done by program participants. Family, friends and members of the wider community who packed the multipurpose creative space at 2026 51st St. S. in Gulfport for the organization’s open house had the opportunity to hear music, look at and interact with art, treat themselves to food – all created by ProjectFREE students – as well as to learn more about the work being done by differently abled adults in and around Gulfport.
“We started [ProjectFREE] for my daughter Lauren,” says co-founder Sharon Vanderlinde, “because we couldn’t find a great program for her.”
According to Vanderlinde, who runs the organization with her sister, Executive Director Kim Costanzo, the entire family pitched in to build ProjectFREE into a multifaceted arts and entrepreneurial organization that offers opportunities for participants to learn and develop skills in performing, visual and culinary arts, as well as to step into the realm of free enterprise by offering their creations for sale to the community.
“When our artists create an original piece of art and they sell it,” Vanderlinde says, “they get one hundred percent of the profit.”
Vanderlinde, Costanzo and their team ensure that all teaching artists who work with ProjectFREE are experienced in their respective fields. From the music instructors who all play in bands locally, to art instructors like Alexis Arrazcaeta, a graduate student at the University of Florida, who led the creation of two distinct murals adorning the outside wall of ProjectFREE’s building.
“Being that the community here in St. Pete is so thriving with murals everywhere downtown,” Arrazcaeta said, “it really gives them an opportunity to showcase their abilities, and be recognized in the community as professional artists.”
On one half of the wall is a three-dimensional piece, a set of wings crafted with dozens of hand-cut feathers that were painted and arranged by close to 20 artists from the program.
“The wings really speak to this population and brings awareness for other people to understand what it means for these people to create,” Arrazcaeta said, “and what limitations that we work with and how we adapt things to make it possible for them.”
Learn more about the work as well as upcoming events at myprojectfree.org.