Ebony Payne-English, managing director of The Performers Academy describes the organization’s headquarters as “the labyrinth.” As she leads me on a tour of the facility, I realize that description is spot-on. This 10,000 square foot maze of brightly painted rooms in the St. Nicholas area of Jacksonville is a full-scale arts academy for kids and teens, many of whom are in foster care. Payne-English guides me through the twists and turns of the space, the endless rooms holding everything a creative kid could ask for; dance studios, music rooms, recording booths, and areas overflowing filled with art and collage materials. Once I’ve seen every room in the building, Payne-English then takes me across the parking lot to a separate building that holds the Academy’s theatre space, and the slightly unkempt yard in which she envisions a mural project and an outdoor performance venue.

Managing Director of The Performers Academy Payne-English describes the organization as “therapy in disguise.” // Photo: Brantman

The Performer’s Academy began ten years ago as a time saving endeavor for founder and mom of three, Kathryn McAvoy. All of her children participated in after school art programs, all in different locations. The Academy was born from a need to have as many art programs as possible under one roof. “As so many ideas and businesses do,” McAvoy explains, “it started out as one thing and then eventually took a hard right.” McAvoy had always been somewhat of a philanthropist and a community activist, volunteering at the Sulzbacher Center, Nemours Children’s Clinic, and various other charitable organizations. As she was creating The Performers Academy, she began to realize that there was a strong need for at-risk youth and kids within the foster care system to have a safe space to feel welcome and to express themselves. “So many people don’t even know what these kids go through just to survive,” McAvoy says. Once she teamed up with author and poet Payne-English, who started as a volunteer for one of the first camps at the Academy, the space really began to take off. “I’ve become a mother since I’ve been here,” Payne-English explains. “And I can’t imagine what it would be like if my child didn’t have me.” She’s proud to be a part of a support system for kids who don’t have permanent parents, and some of whom are parents themselves.

“So many people don’t even know what these kids go through just to survive,” says Performers Academy founder Kathryn McAvoy. // Photo: Brantman

The Performers Academy aims to facilitate a kind of “therapy in disguise,” as Payne-English puts it. There is an emphasis on how the arts can be used not only as a form of self-expression, but also of release, meditation, and most importantly, active therapy for those who need it desperately. The students at the Academy release their anger and anxiety through their artwork, their dancing, and their music. In this facility, kids have the resources to write, perform and produce their own music. Many of them rap about their life and experiences. Payne-English described the soundproof vocal booth as not only a place to record, but a place where a student can just go to be alone and decompress, with or without the microphone turned on.

Outside of the facility itself, McAvoy and Payne-English are working with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and organizations like The Boys and Girls club to bring The Performers Academy’s initiatives to at-risk youth to the broader community. They are constantly looking for opportunities for help and, of course, need funding in order to keep their vision thriving, and to be able to pay the “starving artists” who give their time and energy to teach these invaluable programs to as many at-risk kids as they can possibly reach.

To learn more about donating or volunteering with The Performers Academy, visit theperformersacademy.org.

This article orginally appeared under the title Therapy in Disguise for At-Risk Youth in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 7 Do Good