Michael Ekbladh, director of the music ministry at First United Methodist Church, stands outside his office where is planning and organizing the fundraiser for the First Arts Academy. (Tori Whidden/WUFT News)

The First Arts Academy Designed For East Gainesville Students Coming This Fall 


After countless hours of crafting, planning and organizing, Michael Ekbladh’s vision for the future of his church is becoming a reality.

With the help of the community and congregation, his hard work will be seen and heard throughout downtown Gainesville starting this fall. Ekbladh is the director of the music ministry at First United Methodist Church. He is taking on the role of program director for a new ministry opening in August – the First Arts Academy.

“Centuries ago, the church was the repository for art,” Ekbladh said.

Since the state legislature and many schools have budgeted music and art out of the funding, he said someone had to take the initiative to bring it back.

“We may find the next Leonard Bernstein, who knows,” he said.  “But it takes providing the opportunity.”

The First Arts Academy will offer private lessons to children who want to learn to sing, dance, perform theatre or play an instrument, Ekbladh said.

There will be six rooms and a sanctuary dedicated to the classes. Classes will be on Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the church campus, located at 419 NE First St.

“This ministry is particularly designed for children on the east side of Gainesville who may not have the financial means to take private lessons,” Ekbladh said.

First United Methodist Church is located at 419 NE First St. The Harry Potter Wizard Training will be held on the grounds of this church. (Tori Whidden/WUFT News)

The church is starting an annual fundraiser to collect scholarship funds. This will guarantee spots for multiple east side students to take classes.

The first fundraiser is the Harry Potter Wizard Training. It will be on Saturday, May 4, from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The scholarship funding is primarily coming from ticket sales and personal donations.

“We are expecting to sell out of our limited 200 tickets that weekend,” said Janet Rocap, the church’s office manager.

The tickets to this fundraiser went on sale the first week in April and are only available online. Tickets are $10 for adults and children. Childcare for children under 3 years old will be offered for $5, Rocap said.

Many community members have questioned the Harry Potter and wizard theme in a church setting.

“Training of wizards is a way for adults and children to enlarge their minds of taking something evil and making it good,” Rocap said. “The themes of good and evil are often portrayed in the Harry Potter books and movies and they are the same themes that are presented in the bible.”

Rocap said the theme of good and evil isn’t the only reason they chose wizard training. She said Harry Potter is a subject that could attract children, adults and college students.

“We are even expecting the University of Florida Quidditch team to make an appearance for the kids,” Rocap said.

The game of Quidditch was originally invented by J. K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” series. The UF community has a club sports team and they often attend Harry Potter themed volunteering events, team member Jeremy Kowkabany said.

Program director Michael Ekbladh admires the hard work that the community members have put into the fundraiser. Harry Potter-themed walls and cutouts will be displayed and organized inside the sanctuary of FUMC. The event will also take place outside in the courtyard. (Tori Whidden/WUFT News)

Sarah Rockwell has been a member of the church since 2004. She says that planning started last year and she is hopeful it will be a huge success for the sake of the church and east side students.

It’s “a small congregation, but we always manage to do a lot with a little,” Rockwell said.

The goal of the ministry is to provide lessons at low to no cost. Currently, most of the private music lessons are on the west side of town and are costly, Rockwell said.

She said the main reason Ekbladh coordinated this fundraiser is for the scholarships for a program that costs each student $840.

“With just this fundraiser,” Ekbladh said, “if we raise $5,000, we can pay for six full scholarships or 12 half scholarships to the academy.”

The goal is to have the children pay a very small portion of that fee or no fee at all, Ekbadh said.

Ekbladh, his co-workers and the congregation are working to get the word out about this opportunity to people living in East Gainesville.

“We have been blessed with a wonderful venue full of talent, heart and passion,” Rocap said. “We want to offer this opportunity to young people who may never have the chance.”

About Tori Whidden

Tori is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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