Liberty Street Church of God youth group creates Christmas cards for nursing home residents

Photo by Jeff Baughan Cierra Craft lends suggestions as students with Liberty Street Church of God’s Escape Artists draw. Craft assists Julie Whitley, Ashley Craft and Jane Cottle with the Escape Artists.

PARKERSBURG — In a building on 13th Street, within a stone’s throw of the Liberty Street Church of God, is the “Escape” building. Escape is the name of the church’s youth group program.

Coming through the front door, one sees many different areas where students gather. Tucked away in a corner, near the stage, is an area different than any other.

It is where the Escape Artists gather. The Escape Artists are artists in training. Wednesday night, about a dozen were making Christmas cards for nursing home residents. The nearby Christmas tree contained ornaments made by the students.

The program is headed by Julie Whitley, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Art Institute. She said any given Wednesday night there are usually 12-18 students participating in the 6 p.m. program. Worship service begins at 6:30 p.m.

“There’s usually 60-70 kids here on a Wednesday night,” said Eric Tucker, who is the church’s youth leader. “Artists is open to any of the students who attend. We have the place full on Wednesdays and we have students doing many things before service. But the artists program, hey, that was a God thing. He put all the pieces and the people in the right place at the right time. He put in our lap. All we had to do was say ‘yes’ and run with it.”

Photo by Jeff Baughan Julie Whitley is a Pittsburgh Art Institute graduate who is the director of the Liberty Street Church of God’s Escape Artists, which allows middle and high school students to work on art skills before the start of Wednesday night service. Last Wednesday night, nearly a dozen were working on Christmas cards for nursing home residents.

The Whitleys reside in Ravenswood. Her husband, James, worked at Century Aluminum but when the aluminum industry left, so did the Whitleys. The family moved around but for the last eight years resided in Martinsburg and were active at Independent Bible Church. It was there in Martinsburg, the Parkersburg Escape Artists has its roots.

Whitley had taught art to homeschooled students in the Pittsburgh area before the family moved to Martinsburg. She offered to begin the program there and had success.

“Lots of students there played sports but some students, mostly middle school, felt disconnected because they didn’t play sports,” she said. “But they found art as a way to connect with others. We found teaching art encouraged students. It encouraged the students to perform; to have joy and to have a passion for something. Art unlocked it for so many.”

So it is in Parkersburg now as students are drawn to the tables.

“Julie approached with the idea and said at the last church she was at, the program had good success,” said Tucker. “She wanted to know if I would consider doing the same. Well, yeah.

Photo by Jeff Baughan Julie Whitley helps sisters Liberty Crew, left, and Taylor Crew with artwork for Christmas cards for nursing home residents.

“We have a philosophy here,” Tucker continued and said with seriousness. “We do whatever it takes to get them (students) through the doors. Well almost. We will do anything short of sin to reach the kids for Jesus.”

The Whitleys and Tucker’s relationship came from a mutual friend, IBC Youth Pastor John Rickman.

“John is a good friend of Eric’s and they attended (Appalachian Bible) college together,” said Julie. “John asked Eric to speak at a middle school retreat I attended. That weekend I met Eric.”

James is a mechanical engineer with Constellium in Ravenswood.

“When we came to the realization we were coming back to Ravenswood, John suggested we check out the church where Eric was, which was Liberty Street Church of God,” he said.

Tucker said: “Initially, we didn’t have the space for this program. We un-rolled paper on the counter space at the eating area and they would use that but it got to be a bit dangerous with the artwork when someone spills soda or gets a mustard or ketchup stain on the paper.

“Now it has its own area where students can draw, display the artwork and learn a life skill,” Tucker said. “It isn’t just a space where we dropped a few tables down and said ‘here you go.’ No, we wanted this to be a place to interest the students.”

Tucker said the artist corner has been paid for “100 percent through donations. People in the church saw it as a chance to invest in the future of students, not only this generation but for those to come.”

“This area, this program, this youth program, it’s really very impressive what Eric and Pastor Brian (Harrell) have done,” Julie said. “They haven’t held back on the funding for the art materials and everything it takes to make it work.”

When the Whitleys left Martinsburg, they didn’t have to look far for a place to live, according to Julie.

“When we left, we tried to sell the house but with no success; so we kept it. When we came back after eight years in Martinsburg, we just moved back in,” she said.

As Wednesday was about Christmas cards, any given Wednesday could be any artwork subject. In the summer, Wednesday will expand into Thursday. There’s just a requirement.

“In the summer, Thursday will feature a V.I.P. art class,” she said. “It’s a free art class Thursdays for any student attending Escape the night before. It’s going to be an opportunity for students who really want art lessons, but don’t feel like they can afford them, to make a way to get them.”