Sunday, April 22, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 7

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on June 19th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 15 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 15

Free for all: Santa Maria's Youth Arts Alive program offers activities for local kids


Gale McNeeley was so alarmed by the spate of violent crimes in Santa Maria last year, he wanted to do something to help vulnerable youth in the community.

What he wound up creating is Youth Arts Alive, a free month-long summer camp at the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center that offers classes in music, dance, theater, and visual arts to youth ages 12 through 17. Participants can take singing and dance lessons, learn how to play drums, perform improvised theater scenes, and much more. It’s a unique program offered for the first time in Santa Maria. To get an idea of what the classes are actually like, students can try them out on Youth Arts Alive Day, June 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. No prior registration is required to participate in classes on that day.

Gale McNeeley helped launch Youth Arts Alive to offer free arts programs to youth during the summer. Classes include lessons in drama, music, visual art, and dance from instructor Marilyn Mercado.

McNeeley, a local singer and artist, said he wanted to find ways to stop teens from becoming involved with gangs and violence. He started by reaching out to local youth, asking them what they thought the problem was. They gave him various answers, but everything tied back to one common denominator.

“Their reasons were that there was nothing for kids to do,” McNeely said. “I realized there wasn’t lot of youth programming for junior high and high school kids outside of sports. There are a lot of teens looking for things to do that don’t cost an arm and a leg. I started to look into it.”

He quickly discovered that many art-focused programs are cost prohibitive to low-income families. When he couldn’t find the kind of free programming he envisioned, he decided to come up with one on his own.

“I wrote a grant to the Santa Maria Arts Council,” McNeeley said. “That’s how we got off the ground.”

But armed with little more than a $500 grant (and later an additional $200 grant from Santa Barbara County), McNeeley faced an uphill battle. With arts, music, and drama camps for young students, much of the funding ends up paying to rent a venue, and finding free or cheap spaces readily available is challenging.

McNeeley reached out to Dennis Smitherman, management analyst with the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, who offered to donate space at the Abel Maldonado center for free, a huge boon for the fledgling program.

A group of teachers joined McNeely’s program, including music instructor Joelyn Lutz, dance instructors Ricardo and Marilyn Mercado, drummer Sean Sullivan, and visual artist Laura-Susan Thomas. McNeeley teaches the theater classes, including instruction on mask work and improvisation.

“Anything we create will be improvised,” he said. “We’re not using any script. Whatever we produce comes out of their brains and bodies.”

Try it out
Youth between ages 12 and 17 are encouraged to sign up for Youth Arts Alive’s free summer programs on their website To get an idea of what the classes are actually like, students can try them out on Youth Arts Alive Day on June 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. No prior registration is required to participate in classes on that day. Classes are held at the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center, 600 S McClelland St., Santa Maria.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help raise more funds for the program at

For now, McNeeley is focused on encouraging more area youth to sign up for the free classes.

“A dream would be that it could be an ongoing project,” he said. “I want more youth programming as an alternative to bad stuff down the pipes. I want places for kids to be safe. If you get people to start engaging in positive things like art, they’re not going to get into trouble.”

Arts and Lifestyle writer Rebecca Rose played “Young Villager No. 2” in a 1983 summer theater camp production of Robin Hood. Contact her at

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