It started out as a summer feeding program for children and youth who needed a safe and supervised place to "hang out" and receive a free lunch. But then something unexpected occurred.
"The kids stayed - sometimes for hours," says Kathy Christian, Executive Director of the Fire Escape.
"They didn't come just to eat, they wanted something more. At first, we weren't sure what it was but, as the days passed, the youth identified their new interests: performing. Whether they were singing, playing an instrument, or just onstage 'jamming' with their friends - the message was clear: planned or not, the Fire Escape had the beginnings of a performing arts program."
The Fire Escape had been started as a Teen Club, a place for young people to feel the safe love of Christ and feel the freedom to learn a few of the basics in singing, playing and song composition without the usual competition and jealousy.
"As these young people grew in their confidence," explains Christian, "we started to look at what we could offer them. We started small by finding a guitar teacher and offering guitar lessons. We added a drum teacher and then someone donated a set of drums to the center. Before long, the sound of bass, snare and cymbals began to fill the hall. We teach guitar, primarily to middle school and high school aged students, though we do have a student who is only 6 years old. We have tried to expand to offer other courses of study, such as visual art, songwriting, instrumental and vocal performing."
As word of the Fire Escape's program spread, more young people dropped by - some out of curiosity, others to try their hand at making music.
Two sisters, Lexus and Cheridan, came because they had friends who came for lunch. Even though they had been singing together "forever," they were just putting together their band midway through 2011. Known as the Railroad Angels, Lexus (20) sings lead vocals and Cheridan (15) sings harmony and plays bass and guitar. They perform traditional country, bluegrass and new country. With the support and encouragement of the instructors, staff and friends, the "Angels" began working on their own original songs - one of which, "Kiss Another Boy," has been well-received and was performed when the band opened for Sammy Kershaw during a recent Downtown Kingsport concert. They can be found on Facebook, Twitter and ReverbNation.
Also through the Fire Escape's performing arts program, several other musicians have garnered acclaim: Lucy George was named North American Country Music Association International (NACMAI) Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year and earned first place in the songwriting category; and Jevonte Lyons was named (NACMAI) Male Gospel Vocalist of the Year and is a current Kingsport Idol Finalist. Other NACMAI winners include: Rachel Trigg, Destiny Baker, Scott Tate and Brittney Tate.
While such a roster is impressive for a small non-profit agency like the Fire Escape, Christian has bigger plans.
"We would love to grow the program and offer other art forms like drama and dance. Because we are a small, faith-based program, we are not eligible for many of the grants that secular arts programs receive. We have limited financial support from area churches, so we cannot afford to pay teachers. For instance, if we could pay another guitar teacher, we could offer individual instruction instead of group lessons," she said.
"We have so many talented teens who participate in their high school's theater productions and forensic programs, it's a shame to not take advantage of that talent and offer opportunities for performances during the summer and through different venues in the community. We need volunteers to help with our classes. There are other needs, too, such as lighting and sound, set building and decoration, and costuming. If you have experience in any of these activities and can volunteer a few hours a week, or if you have material or paint for costumes or props, we would be happy to take your donations and do something beautiful with them."
Students are also available to perform at community events where alcohol is not served. For more information, to volunteer or make a contribution, contact the Fire Escape at 423-612-2592. Or email the executive director, Kathy Christian, at Kathythefireescape@yahoo.com.
Whatever the future holds for the program and its participants, one thing is certain.
"All our programs and everything we do here is for the Glory of God. We lift Him up in all our activities and we will continue to do so as long as we are here doing His work," Christian stresses.