Imagine a stone castle where children experience different cultures and history by touching, seeing, moving and tasting.
Imagine a place where Africa, Greece or the jazz era come to life with dance, acting, cooking and art.
Jon Swarthout has such an imagination.
The founder of the Treasure Valley Institute for Children’s Arts (TRICA) dreams of creating a field-trip destination where children can do more than learn — they can experience other cultures and eras with art as the core teaching method.
“I’m incredibly optimistic we’ll be the pioneers who fill an important gap in the learning system,” Swarthout said. “Seeing inspired children will be the real reward.”
Swarthout has been TRICA’s executive director for 19 years. His center provides arts education for more than 5,000 children a year by hosting summer camps, after-school programs and other activities during school hours. He takes his show on the road to public and private schools, libraries and hospitals. Swarthout wants to stop the traveling and create a destination … or rather a castle that invites children into a new world.
All he needs is money.
The non-profit survives on grants, donations and fees. His capital campaign started in 2007 and he has raised and spent $2.5 million on his castle. He needs another $350,000 to open the doors. A final $2 million phased in over 10 years will complete his dream on schedule.
TRICA’s castle is a historic building at 1406 Eastman St. It was originally a church built in 1907 and designed by influential architect Charles Hummel, who also helped plan the Idaho State Capitol building and other Boise landmarks.
The church fell into terrible disrepair and was gutted to become an apartment complex before abandonment made it ripe for drug users. It was labeled “endangered” when Swarthout saved it. Millions of dollars later, it’s close to occupancy.
“We’ve done a lot of work from stabilizing the structure to cleaning out the meth,” he said.
TRICA also purchased a nearby house at 1509 14th St. where the church’s minister used to live. That building will provide a child’s first steps into the learning experience. Children will begin by entering this “story-book cottage” where a teacher passionately brings an African-themed book to life.
The kids will then traverse to the castle’s music studio to listen to African songs. Next is a gallery with African art on display and then a class where they create their own African-inspired work.
Then it’s on to a kitchen to create an African dish and then to a studio to learn an African dance. Finally, the children step on stage to perform.
Themes will rotate semi-annually from cultures to moments in history.
TRICA has only one full-time paid employee — Swarthout. There are two part-time employees and about 35 educators contracted to work with kids. Swarthout expects to hire three to five teachers to work in the castle and to train parent volunteers “with intent and purpose” so kids fully enjoy and learn from the field trip.
“This is not just a program, and with our building and our training plans, we will be an institution,” Swarthout said. “This will give children a richer education and that is especially important with the reform direction education is headed.”
Click here to read more about the building’s history and to see more photos at Preservation Idaho.