Referring to a quote from a thirteen-year-old camper, Schmidt said, “Fine Arts camp affected the way I see the world. I had an acting teacher tell me ‘Always try something you think you can’t do.’ I try to do that all the time now.”

He added, “And to me that’s a call to arms. We ask our students to live a certain way of life. We ask them to follow dreams and pursue them and to take brave risks. A lot of people think that our organization is crazy to take on what’s been an unfortunate problem in our community for the last four years, the boarding up of Sheldon Jackson Campus, and who are we and why should we be doing this? I think it boils down to one thing: We think it’s worth it. We believe it’s worth it to see that place revitalized again, and we believe it’s okay to take risks, and we believe it’s okay as a community to try and do something that might seem impossible at first glance. I figure that if a thirteen-year-old tells me that they live this way, then as a forty-two year old, and a member of the community, we ought to go for it, too.”

Alaska Arts Southeast assumed ownership of twenty buildings, and just over twenty acres, of the core campus of Sheldon Jackson on February 1. Schmidt sees the transfer as a kind of homecoming: The Sitka Fine Arts Camp began at Sheldon Jackson in 1975. Schmidt himself is a former camper.

Since moving back on campus, Alaska Arts Southeast has mustered over five-thousand volunteer hours of manpower. Much early effort was focused on the Hames Wellness Center, which re-opened to the public on the same day the transfer has become official. Now, energy is moving into the other nineteen buildings.

Schmidt told the chamber that he has overcome his initial doubts over the size of the revitalization project.

“Sometime in the fall, when I did have that feeling of just utter panic over what I was getting myself into, I talked to somebody and he gave me some great advice. You know, you’re really just getting a ball rolling forward. We don’t know where this is going, but we do know right now with buildings boarded up, not having heating or plumbing systems, there’s no future. It becomes the opposite story, failure rather than success. So we know that the first step is to open the buildings again and get stuff happening, and programs will grow out of the place again.”

Schmidt says the camp raised $100,000 in unsolicited donations when Sheldon Jackson trustees announced the transfer of the campus. He plans to launch a capital campaign to raise another $400,000 by summer. The camp has historically paid around $90,000 in rent to be housed either at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, or at Sheldon Jackson. Schmidt says that money will now be directed toward refurbishment of the campus.

He disclosed an important strategy in the world of non-profits: Investment follows activity, not the other way around.

“The funders that we work with don’t fund anything that’s not happening. They’re not into speculation. They’re into supporting things that already are happening and leveraging the support that’s there to make new things happen, and greater things happen. People say, Find a grant! My experience is that you don’t find a grant until you’ve got something that a grantor can give back to. The first thing is to awaken the campus, and to put some programs there. To repair the things that have to be repaired immediately for occupancy.”

Enrollment in camp is up fifty percent over this same time last year. Even with the increase in beds available in the SJ dorms, Schmidt said his high school program has already started a wait list. He also reported that a college had called him just that morning with interest in housing education students on campus in the winter, while they worked in Sitka’s schools. Schmidt said this may be the new model at Sheldon Jackson – a satellite campus for a variety of different programs.

Schmidt dismissed the notion that he needed a several-hundred page business plan to bring the campus back to life. His strategy so far has been more basic than that, and possibly more effective.

“We’re approaching it as a building project. We’re approaching it in the same way any professional organization with a large budget would approach it. The difference is we’re leveraging heart. Rather than leveraging money, we’re leveraging heart. We’re saying, You care about this place, would you be willing to help?”

The trustees of Sheldon Jackson College will travel to Sitka for a ceremony to formally transfer the campus to Alaska Arts Southeast at 11:30 AM, Saturday March 12 in the Hames Center.
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