Curled into a ball on a living room couch that dwarfs her, Tonya Combs is more animated than I’ve ever seen her offstage. The 26-year-old Ithaca, N.Y., native usually appears pleasantly content. Rarely do her lips uncoil themselves from their perma-smile, and, when providing vocals for local hip-hop legends Sol.illaquists of Sound, she tends to gaze lovingly at her cohorts like she’s the group’s own biggest fan. Today, though, Combs seems downright giddy over the subject at hand. She’s in the planning stages, along with fellow Sol.illaquist Alexandra Sarton, of opening a kids’ center designed to encourage children to step outside of their everyday lives and be creative.
Self-conscious to a fault as a child, Combs says being part of Solilla freed her to be herself and believe that she could do whatever she loved. “Being onstage, that’s a whole other experience,” she says. “I’m more aware of what it takes to really be who you are. It’s cool to have gone through things because when you see a kid who’s not comfortable with themselves, you know exactly what they’re going through and you can help them through it.”
To her left sits Sarton, lead vocalist for Sol.illaquists and chief architect behind the Solilla Center 4 Creative Kids, a planned nonprofit organization and activity center that will someday feature free classes for children of any age in arts, languages, health and environmental sciences. According to Sarton and Combs, the center – which they hope to build somewhere in the heart of downtown – will operate solely off grants, donations and volunteer work (Sarton estimates the startup will cost around $3 million), run purely off solar and wind power, provide healthy snacks, feature a smoothie bar and a “safe product” store, offer kids’ yoga and healthy cooking classes, and teach sign and foreign languages, poetry, gardening and much more.
“It’s a great response we’re getting,” says Sarton. She points to donation boxes posted around town at music-friendly venues like Dandelion Communitea Café, Stardust Video & Coffee and Park Ave CDs, as well as a website Sarton and Combs set up in which every two dollars donated is matched with a discount on the group’s merchandise (http://solilla.myshopify.com). “We’ve gathered a few thousand `dollars` so far,” says Sarton. “Other people have had events `to benefit the Solilla Center`. So many people have been taking the initiative to have `benefits` that it’s even more inspiring. People are ready for it, to help each other. Especially in Orlando, the culture, the arts, the music, everything is growing and I think we need a place for kids to experience what’s happening in the culture, too.”
It was Sarton who first brought the idea to Combs, a licensed massage therapist, who had been considering opening her own massage therapy business. After the Sol.illaquists’ last tour, Sarton was thinking about what she would do with her free time before recording on a new album began. She realized it was the exact moment that a lifelong dream could start to become a reality for her. “The most ideal situation I could imagine was a comfortable place for kids to go after school, to chill out and learn,” says Sarton. “I didn’t want to start small.”
An adopted child who grew up in a predominantly white area, Sarton says her childhood was difficult despite supportive parents. “I lost my hair when I was 10,” remembers Sarton. “So I’m in Wisconsin, I’m brown, and I have no hair. Not the best combination of self-confidence building. I had to defend myself against bullies and stand up for what I wanted – to make myself stand out creatively so that people could look past it. I have the same vision for `the Solilla Center`.”
Passing on the lessons of her own childhood was a part of Sarton’s life well before joining the Sol.illaquists: She’s taught all kinds of classes, from kindergarten to vegan cooking to art classes in Chicago. “When you encourage kids, when you tell them whatever they choose to do is OK, given a loose set of guidelines – you don’t want them to run out in the middle of the street – when you encourage them to do that, they do. It never fails.”
Combs fell in love with the idea as well, and as word spread of their plans, countless local organizations lined up to take part. “We have to build it first,” says Sarton. “There’s hundreds of people who have already donated money or held events for us. People want to volunteer for the building, installing solar panels, teaching, supervising, everything. It’s been so amazing.”
Combs opens up again, having already beaten her record for number of words spoken to this writer. She says her training in massage healing will be a big part of her role in the Center, and then she reveals more about the lot they have scoped out. “There are For Sale signs on the property, even though `others` have said it’s not available.” She seems almost mischievous for just a moment, as if the two of them are in on a secret they’re not ready to fully disclose, and they may be.
As much as Sarton and Combs love talking about their plans, they admit to coming up empty when seeking out similar business models. “I hate to say we’re the ‘first,’ because of course there’s no such thing as a completely original idea, but I sure haven’t found anything else like this. At least not in Orlando,” says Sarton. Combs nods her head in agreement and as quickly as she revealed a sprightly side, she quiets, her thoughts drifting once again to a place where kids like her aren’t afraid to get lost in their own daydreams for a firstname.lastname@example.org