In the fall of 2009, staff members from Citizens Against Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse [CAPSEA] had just returned from the funeral of their colleague, Liz Mitchell, when they received some news that was both joyous and sorrowful: the grant they had applied for to revamp the backyard at their shelter had just come through, but their dear friend Liz, who was the driving force behind the project, would not be there to share it with them.
Mitchell, who died of breast cancer on Sept. 12 of last year, was CAPSEA's community outreach training coordinator. She was particularly focused on brightening the experience of children who stayed at CAPSEA's shelter, and made many efforts over the years to secure funding for child-friendly amenities and equipment. Billie Jo Weyant, CAPSEA's executive director, said Mitchell had been determined to makeover the shelter's backyard area into a safe, enjoyable space for children and families to play and relax.
"It was Liz - she wanted to make something really nice for the children," said Barb Caggeso, fiscal officer at CAPSEA, of the push for the now-completed project.
Prior to the renovations, Weyant noted, it wasn't much of a backyard, with an old swingset, patchy grass and some accompanying weeds as the main features.
"It was in bad shape," Weyant said.
Mitchell decided to go after funding for the project and CAPSEA applied for a grant from the Mary Kay Foundation, the charitable arm of cosmetics company Mary Kay Inc. The foundation's mission is twofold: to eliminate cancer and to end the cycle of abuse in families. Laura Claypool, a Mary Kay sales director in the St. Marys area, wrote a letter in support of CAPSEA's application.
Laurie Maletto, CAPSEA's housing coordinator, said staff members returned from Mitchell's funeral to find an e-mail for Weyant informing them that CAPSEA had been awarded a $20,000 grant.
"And that's exactly what it took to do all of that back there," Caggeso said.
Laurie Maletto, CAPSEA's housing coordinator, said they wanted the project to be both a safe haven for the families at the shelter and a tribute to Mitchell. They also wanted to use local resources for the project. After an online search, she found artist Brenda Nicklas, owner of Laughing Dog Mosaics, to paint the walls of the enclosed backyard space and to create a mosaic bench in honor of Mitchell.
Nicklas said although she had never met Mitchell, she felt she knew her through the CAPSEA staff, and was inspired by her dream.
"This is the imprint she's left on everyone's heart. I was very honored. I enjoy being a part of things that have a deeper meaning to them," Nicklas said.
Nicklas spent a week creating the bench mosaic and about 62 hours decorating the fence with pictures of trees and children playing.
"Brenda made it a happy place," Maletto said. "It has lots of Liz in it."
She added that Tom Moran, who owns an eponymous construction company based in Ridgway, performed the excavation, leveling and other site preparation of activities. With the installation of a soft outdoor surface, a playset, and the embellishments by Nicklas, the space was ready to go and was used extensively by shelter residents over the summer. Weyant said because safety reasons preclude shelter residents from leaving to take a walk or play outside, it is important for them to have a secure space to play and relax.
"They're in shelter, so they can't go out, and this gives them a place to get out. Kids need to release that energy," said Eva Meisel, sexual assault counselor at CAPSEA.
Weyant said the new backyard, with its colorfully painted walls, is a visual reminder to staff of the goals they strive for and their commitment to helping others.
"And for the families we have in shelter, I think it probably provides a serenity they probably didn't have in the past," Maletto added.
For more on this story, see the Nov. 27 edition of The Daily Press.