Restoring Dignity

Repurpose Art Studio has become a local haven for many homeless women, offering them a loving community and equipping them with essential skills to help launch them into a new life. For Jasmine Washington, 2017 was a year of renewal. To reflect this life change, The Lakelander partnered with Top Buttons Boutique to give Jasmine a new look as she pursues a fresh start.

photography by Rob Crosby / styling by Abdiel Gonzalez / makeup by Kaitlin Laing / hair by Tiffani Neal

Jasmine Washington greeted me with a confident handshake and a delightful gravelly voice. We sat at a small table in Repurpose Art Studio, surrounded by bright artwork and bathed in warm lighting. It immediately felt like a place I had visited a thousand times. In a chair next to Jasmine sat Connie Lutter, the director of the studio, who shared its history.

THE STUDIO

Repurpose Art Studio is under the umbrella of Gospel Inc., which was founded in 2008 by Brian Seeley. The studio was started in 2013 in the attic of a church and was only open on Saturdays. They now have two employees and are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at their location on Plum Street in Lakeland.

     At first, the purpose of the studio was to train women so they could learn a skill, find a job, and make some money. As the years have passed, the purpose has evolved and become a more holistic, transformative experience for the women. They still focus on valuable training, but the studio has also become a place where the women find themselves before they find their skill.

Every morning, a group of homeless women from the surrounding area meet Connie at the front door. They gather inside at the tables and drink coffee in a quiet space so they can gather their thoughts before getting to work. Connie likes to call it “finding the day.” The group then heads upstairs where there are 12 sewing machines, paints, crafts, and a variety of other arts the women can learn.

JASMINE

Jasmine Washington is 56 and homeless. She grew up in Rhode Island with four siblings and experienced a good childhood.

“We didn’t need or want for anything,” says Jasmine. “I just went down the wrong path. But I did … and you live and learn. You make mistakes.”

After struggling with addiction, Jasmine went to rehab in Canada and wound up moving to Florida with her family. A string of bad luck involving her boyfriend and family resulted in her being alone and without a home. Drugs, alcohol, and sexual abuse left Jasmine in a place she never thought she’d be. She found herself at the Talbot House where she learned about the welcoming environment of Repurpose Art Studio from some of the other women there.

“The first time I came here, I could feel the love when I walked through the door. It’s like a little family. We laugh together, cry together, sing and dance together.”

The unconditional love and acceptance Jasmine and the other women experience at the studio is something they haven’t felt for years, or perhaps ever received at all. The studio is a safe place for the women, literally and figuratively. It’s surrounded by a tall fence and is only accessible via a code-locked front entrance. This level of safety gives the women the freedom to finally find themselves, allowing them to discover who they are and what they want to do instead of solely focusing on day-to-day survival.

“I just sit out back sometimes and think of where I want to go and what I’ve left behind,” Jasmine says. “From the moment I came here, I started to learn from my mistakes. I had a big cement wall around me; I had trust issues. I learned how to take it down and let people in, to stop shutting them out. I’m a survivor, but it took me a long time to realize that.”

When asked where she sees herself in a year, Jasmine doesn’t hesitate.

“I want to get my GED. That’s my first step before I can move on to anything. I know I can do it. Maybe it will be within a year, maybe six months, but that’s my goal. I’m 56, and what do I want in life? You’re never too old to learn, right?”

Once she’s accomplished that goal, Jasmine wants to be a counselor. The strength and self-worth she’s gained from her time at Repurpose Art Studio has inspired her to help other people. She is particularly interested in working with women so she can use her experiences to show them that anything can be overcome.

“I like to talk to people; I like to listen. I never had plans of being a counselor until I came in here. You can tell the ladies here anything, and it won’t go anywhere. That made me realize I need to do something. When people come to me for advice, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I want to help and give back.”

Repurpose Art Studio is aptly named. Jasmine has completely transformed during her time in the studio, and when I asked her how her perspective on life in general has changed, joyful tears began streaming down her face.

“My life just blossomed. They saved me. This place has saved me. It made me feel like I am worth something, like I can do something. I am somebody. I never thought that. Six months ago, I wasn’t thinking things like that. It just opened me, Jasmine, as a person and an individual. I can create things, I can do things, and it’s all because of this place right here.”

The concept of being worthy was threaded throughout our conversation. I asked Jasmine, who is so kind, funny, and warm, how people treat her on the streets.

“A lot of people look at me like I’m nothing. Then I came here and found out I am someone. I can’t control the reaction of people on the street, but in here there is such a great reaction. We’re like family in here. It’s a home. I haven’t been in a kitchen in years … in here we cook, we clean. We’re not homeless when we’re in here. When we walk out of these doors, some people will look at us like we’re dirt, but we’re not.”

It’s hard to believe that this thoughtful and resilient woman walks out of the embrace of the studio every day to face a world that doesn’t seem to care about her. She urges people to be part of the solution, not the problem.

PART OF THE SOLUTION

There are currently 10 to 12 women at the studio who are interested in getting their GEDs. They’ve also started hosting smoking cessation classes. The studio, which has room for 20, wants to host all classes in-house since transportation outside of the immediate area is difficult for the women.

Something that seems so run-of-the-mill to most people — a computer sitting on a desk in the corner, donated by a generous couple — has provided opportunities for the women in the studio that they never imagined were possible. Many of the women have used it to find work.

Jasmine knows she’ll get a job eventually, and she has a plan in place. Her laser-like focus and dedication is inspiring. I ask her what strengths she thinks she’ll bring to the table for any potential employers.

“I’m just now finding my strength. I can bring a lot to the table, but I have to get my GED first. That’s my main focus. I’m a good person. I love to talk. I love to listen, cry, laugh, joke. I’ve got to get my GED first, then I can see what I can bring to the table.”