PEORIA — Bats, dirt and an ancient boiler did not deter Nikki Romain the first time she saw the inside of Greeley School two years ago.
Romain and her husband, artist Jonathon Romain, were working toward buying the 100-year-old school building to use as a community art center.
“It was a little daunting at first. I knew we had a lot of work to do, but it was so inspiring,” said Nikki, 41, while sitting in her third-floor office at the school last week.
Today the Romains’ mission is well underway. Over the past year the school was cleaned and painted and its systems were repaired and upgraded. A grand opening ceremony June 28 allowed the public to see how the Romains have turned the school into an art center, installing a front desk and waiting area in the main hallway. The walls are filled with Jonathon Romain’s artwork, an inspiration to the 35 children participating in the first summer camp held by ART Inc., the not-for-profit organization the Romains founded. Through the whole month of July the classrooms have been filled with students learning about five different artistic mediums — drama, dance, visual arts, film making and coding.
“I know coding is not what you think of as an artistic medium, but it’s actually pretty amazing,” said Nikki. “They are working on a robot program, like Alexa, where you can ask it to do things for you.”
As executive director of ART Inc. Nikki Romain has temporarily put aside her performance career. When the project began to pick up speed Nikki told her long-time, Chicago-based agent that she was taking a break. Her days are now filled with all sorts of administrative tasks necessary for running the art center and keeping the programs going. Though some artist might not relish an administrative role, Nikki is having a great time.
“I feel like everything I’ve done has led me to this place, because I’m equipped with the skills to help these kids,” she said.
Mentoring children and teens has always been among Nikki’s career goals. It’s one of many things she and Jonathon share. When the pair met in Chicago about nine years ago, Nikki was amazed by how much they had in common.
“I had just moved back from LA and we met at an art show,” said Nikki. “Our lives were so similar we just connected. When we started dating we started talking about all the things we could do together.”
Key among their similarities was the fact that both credit art for saving their lives long before they met. Art helped Romain overcome a troubled childhood which had led him to a life of gangs, drugs and violence. His involvement in the drug trade continued even while he was earning a degree at Bradley University. After graduation he spent five years in prison, which gave him time to rediscover and hone his artistic skills. By the time he was released, Jonathon was already selling artwork. For Nikki, performance allowed her to address issues of love, loss, triumph and self-identity, and explore topics which make people — including herself — uncomfortable. She says that art has helped her deal with a painful past, which included domestic violence, sexual assault, and attempted suicide.
The Romains know the power of art and want to pass it on. So when Jonathon came home one day talking about buying an abandoned school building, Nikki didn’t even need to think about it.
“He said, ‘Hey, babe, you want to buy a school?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ Nikki said.
The Romains didn’t wait until the building was ready to start helping kids. They started ART Inc. and began after-school programs in Trewyn, Glen Oak, and Manual High School in the fall of 2018. Those classes will continue this fall, said Nikki.
While art is a big part of their vision, it’s only a tool to help reach kids and teach them important life skills.
“Art is the carrot,” said Nikki. “We want to show them how to be sustainable.”
Kids who want to pursue a career in the arts can learn how to build a business that actually earns money. Kids interested in other career paths can still benefit from the creative environment the Romains are building.
“We will also be teaching life skill classes, like how to change a tire, woodworking and a sewing class where kids learn how to mend their clothes,” said Nikki, who envisioned a class where students learn how to convert a pair of pants with worn hems into shorts. Cooking may also figure into the curriculum, with the help of a dietician who is a permanent tenant of the school.
The Romains have gotten a lot of community support and have also proven themselves to be proficient fundraisers. They are also working to diversify their revenue stream by offering facility rental to individuals and organizations on an as-needed basis. Any space in the school, from a single classroom to the school’s auditorium, are available for rent.
The Romains are working to ensure that the project succeeds in the long run. Though they enjoy doing the after-school programs, having a permanent site for programing allows them to be available to the kids they mentor for years to come. Long-term relationships increase the chance that they will be able to improve a few lives, said Nikki.
“We want to provide a safe place for them after school and in the summer, some place where they can have fun and learn,” she said. “It’s about the kids — it’s bigger than us.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.