Miami-Dade — Margarita Gayle-Major’s relationship with the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center (AHCAC) is a full circle experience. As a teen, she participated in its programs and now, as a parent, she makes the weekly trek from Ft. Lauderdale to take her children to the Liberty City treasure that is responsible for her oldest son living his California dream.

“It started with me more than 30 years ago when I was a teen and I used to go there for after school programs. I stayed. One of my first jobs was there,” said Gayle-Majors, who owns the Holistic Arts Development Center in Lauderhill.

Located at 6161 NW 22nd Avenue, the center offers the 10-week Summer Art Conservatory, a comprehensive instructional program that includes performing, fashion, and visual arts for children from five to sixteen years old. While it may fall under the category of a summer camp, what the center offers is so much more.

Gayle-Major’s son, Najee Temple, 24, got his start at the AHCAC when he was 5 years old “and continued until he graduated,” she said. “Because of his experience there, he got accepted into New World School of the Arts and then went on to a college in California to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He now has a degree in theater and is now actively living and working in Hollywood.”

It is not unusual for students to become regulars at the AHCAC, returning each year for the summer program while also participating in the center’s after school activities year round.  Like Gayle-Major, many parents are former AHCAC students who now bring their children to the program.  It’s also a launching pad for children interested in careers in the arts.

Their older brother is not the only celebrity that her children know. She said that they got the chance to meet tap sensation Savion Glover recently when he visited the center. Temple also makes it a point to go back whenever he’s in South Florida, not just to visit but, according to his mother, “To see how he can help out when he’s in town. That’s just the type of energy the place creates.”

Marshall Davis is the longtime manager and is revered by his staff, students, parents and the community. The silver haired, soft spoken Davis, 65, is synonymous with the AHCAC, which started out as a traditional recreational program under Miami-Dade county’s parks and recreation department.

“One of the things that we did was to change the concept of the program and make it a multi-art developmental program. We’ve been very successful at helping kids to actualize their skills. I brought my own kids here. Marshall Davis Jr. is a prolific tap dancer and my son, who goes by the name Cello is a stand-up comedian who has been on BET and with Tom Joyner on the cruise that raises money for colleges,” said Davis, who has been with the AHCAC for more than 30 years.

A full circle AHCAC experience can also describe Ashlee Thomas’ relationship with the beloved program. Thomas, 31, serves as the center’s manager of marketing & community outreach. She and her siblings attended the center’s program when Ashlee was nine-years old and their single working mother needed affordable after school activities for her children. After hearing from several people about the high quality program at AHCAC, she checked it out and was amazed at what the program offered.

Ashlee learned to play the flute at the center and eventually expanded her instruction to include dance. She credits the program with bringing her out of her shell.

“I was a bit of an introvert,” said the Florida State University graduate. That changed because of her involvement at the AHCAC. “I stayed from nine until 14 and became a volunteer until I went off to college.” Whenever she was home on spring breaks or during summers, she was working at the AHCAC.

In her role as marketing manager, Thomas is eager to alert all of South Florida about the center and what it offers children, but she cautions parents to register early, especially for the five to nine year old category, which tends to fill up fast.

The program’s popularity is due to its reputation for providing a smorgasbord of activities at very affordable prices. It doesn’t hurt that all of the teachers are professional artists who are working in their crafts who, Thomas said, bring innovative arts experience to the kids.

“The service there and the quality of instruction is top notch. For what they charge ($50 per week), it’s a community based program so the fees are manageable,” said Gayle-Major.

Thomas said that a typical day exposes children to a variety of instruction in the different art forms that engage both sides of their brains; the creative and the academic.

“The kids take about five to six classes per day. It’s a multi-disciplinary program so they can choose from theater, dance, visual arts, fashion, journalism, creative writing. It’s a really great dynamic program where students get a diverse range of the arts to participate in,” Thomas explained.

“The end of the program culminates in three major performances. Students learn how to produce their shows. They have a fashion show where they create all of their own work; a visual arts exhibition. We also have a summer arts festival where music, theater and visual arts are put on display,” she said of the standing room only events. “It finishes with a big recital at the Joseph Caleb Center.”

Thomas sums up the program like this, “The center is really the heartbeat of Liberty City when it comes to cultural arts.”

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