Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center
Debra Jenkins admires volunteers who balance home, job, family, and charity, always making it look easy. She is not one of them. "I sweat a lot, and everybody knows it," Debra laughs.
Her motto? "Just do it." Three years ago when she and husband Alan wanted to give to their community, they didn't meet with city officials or get a focus group together. Instead, they bought a dilapidated old building and completely renovated it into a performing arts center, not knowing at first that it had once been a company store and hub for Huntsville's textile industry.
Today Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center is again the heart of the neighborhood. Since opening in 2007 after a $3 million renovation, its events have drawn 60,000 people. It is also home to Dance Your Dreams, which Debra started in consultation with physical therapists for children with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities--some with feeding tubes and walkers or wheelchairs, some terminally ill. So far it has served 90, each child paired with a trained teen volunteer. Debra's admiration for the children's parents deepened when she and a friend spent 30 minutes helping a little girl in leg braces change out of her ballet shoes. Brandy Grapperhaus, mother of 6-year-old Amelia, says, "As soon as I pull out her tights, she starts swaying back and forth. She is really excited. That means everything in the world to me."
Meanwhile, the performing arts center has triggered the neighborhood's reclamation by families, who have formed a homeowners association. Property values have gone up, zoning has changed to single-family, and absentee landlords are vanishing. Debra says, "We hope to leave a lasting legacy so that 30 years from now, people are still coming to Merrimack Hall."