Volunteers with the Theatre Wings organization are doing their best to help area college students close the curtain on homesickness.
The group works throughout the year to provide support to the students in the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, a collaboration between Brenau University, Gainesville State College and theater professionals.
“It all basically started with Lessie Smithgall,” Kate Carlson, Wings board member, said of The Times’ co-founder and longtime Gainesville philanthropist.
“Way back when, when she was getting The Arts Council going, she got all of these women together in her dining room and started (Wings) all up.”
That dining room gathering has grown to a network of more than 50 volunteers reaching out to nearly 200 theater students.
“The first few weeks of college life away from home can get a little difficult,” said Stefanie Lehmann, a junior theater arts management major at Brenau.
“The wonderful thing that Theatre Wings provides us is that support system that we grew up having. (They) can help us through the next four years and our parents can feel better knowing we’re being taken care of.”
One of group’s major contributions to the student thespians is hosting the annual freshman dinner. This year’s dinner is scheduled for Sunday.
“It’s right about that time that the freshmen are close to hitting that first stress point. There are midterms coming up and they’re just getting through with auditions,” said Karen Lightfoot, Theatre Wings president and a Brenau professor.
“Some of them have been used to being at the top of their game and now suddenly they didn’t get a part. So this is a good opportunity for them to get that comforting home experience.”
Event organizers solicit volunteers through the Wings network to find hosts to invite incoming freshman into their homes for dinner.
“We try not to restrict what they cook, but we ask them not to be too gourmet. It’s not meant to be anything more than real community building. Hot dogs and hamburgers are fine,” said Bill Lightfoot, event coordinator and dean of Brenau’s college of business and mass communications.
“It’s meant to be family time. We have nine people signed up to host this year. After (the students) go out to the community, we’ll all meet here at Brenau for dessert (and more socializing).”
The students and volunteers aren’t just exchanging pleasantries, they’re actually getting to know one another. Last year, the Wings organizers asked each student — and volunteer — to explain their journey to the Brenau theater program.
“Everyone took about five minutes to explain their personal story. It’s really interesting,” said Bill Lightfoot.
“It helps you make connections with people.”
Even as a senior, Lindsey Wyszynski still remembers the warm feelings she experienced during her own freshman dinner.
“It kind of felt like that true family we talk about when we go out recruiting students,” said Wyszynski, a senior theater major at Brenau.
“We always say we’re like a family, but it’s not until you have that experience of being able to go to somebody’s house and they open up to you and there’s food that you feel like you have a little home here.”
Wings also helps the budding theater professionals further their education.
“Back in the (1980s) an anonymous donor gave us $50,000. It’s been in an endowment and has grown to more than $84,000 today,” Karen Lightfoot said.
“We fund scholarships through that endowment.”
Wings members also sell concessions during each of the Alliance performances to help theater students attend the annual Southeastern Theatre Conference, where they can audition for productions and apply for theatre jobs.
“Most of the students wouldn’t be able to go without the support of Theatre Wings. There’s not another program like this one,” Lehmann said.
“Whenever we go to the conference, we meet people from all over. As we’re talking, if we mention Theatre Wings, everyone always says, ‘That’s the coolest thing. I wish our school would do that. I had to take out a loan to get here.’”
Being able to attend the conference is an important step for many of the students.
“I got a 13-week contract with a theater in Indiana (last) summer that’s paid for me to live (during this school year). If it wasn’t for Theatre Wings paying for me to go (to that conference), I wouldn’t have been able to be thereto get the job,” said James Odom, a Brenau senior theater major.
Organizers say the relationship between the students and volunteers is a mutual one. The students get the support they need to do what they love and the volunteers get the opportunity to support something they love — the arts.
“You develop a very special bond,” Karen Lightfoot said.
“We feel like we’ve adopted these kids. They’re like family.”