A Lawrence loan servicing center kicks off the Lawrence Arts Center's expansion project.
Elaine Nelson launched the fund drive to renovate and expand the Lawrence Arts Center Thursday afternoon by announcing that Sallie Mae has donated $150,000 toward the $4.8 million project.
Nelson, assistant vice president of operations at the Sallie Mae office at 2000 Bluffs Dr., said dozens of the company's employees -- as well as herself -- have taken advantage of classes, exhibits and performances at the arts center.
"Our employees are very proud of the community involvement of Sallie Mae. In fact, they are the community involvement of Sallie Mae ..." she said. "It's an investment on behalf of all the employees."
When the center announced plans to expand and renovate last year, Sallie Mae officials decided to earmark the donation in honor of the company's 10th anniversary in Lawrence.
The project calls for the arts center to expand to the west and north, providing more space for a new theater, large exhibition galleries, more classrooms, art studios, offices and a library.
On hand at the presentation, held in the arts center's gallery, were six Sallie Mae employees and their children, all willing to talk about how they had benefited from the center's programs.
Garry Fister, the company's supervisor of facilities, said his two daughters -- Madeline, 6, and Molly, 3 -- were enrolled in the center's ballet classes. Both girls were wearing tutus, leotards and tights.
"I like to leap," Madeline replied when asked why she liked the classes. "(I like it) because you always get to jump up into the air."
Fister said the Saturday morning dance classes have been a ritual at their home for the past 3 1/2 years.
"It's given them the opportunity to dance ... and it shows them a whole other world," her father said. "It gives them an outlet for their energy."
Originally from Chicago, Fister said it is unusual to find programs in small communities that are as "well-organized and thorough" as those provided by the arts center.
Pam Spring, another Sallie Mae employee, said she took her first class at the arts center last summer. It was an eight-week calligraphy course taught by Anne Merydith-Wolfe, a secretary at Kansas University's Applied English Center.
Spring's 6-year-old daughter, Clara, has been a student in the arts center's ballet and clay-molding classes.
"For her it was fun and she could participate with kids her own age," Pam Spring said, adding that her daughter gained confidence by making her own art objects and found a good role model in her dance instructor.
Although she took a yoga class a few years back, Nelson said she most enjoys the center's art exhibits and performances, which include productions by the Prairie Wind Dancers, Seem-to-Be Players and Summer Youth Theatre.
Ann Evans, executive director of the arts center, said she was "thrilled" by the Sallie Mae gift.
"It's a wonderful day," she said. "Sallie Mae, since it's been here, has always been generous to the arts center. For them to be the first donor is truly wonderful."