Inside a humble, single-story building near Remount Road in Hanahan, a nonprofit is transforming the Charleston-area Hispanic community.
Art Pot Multicultural Group is the first Hispanic center of its kind in South Carolina, according to its executive director, Maribel Acosta, and board chairwoman, Lydia Cotton.
Despite starting with little funding, the center provides arts and community-based education that its leaders say is helping to unify the area's diverse and under-served Spanish-speaking community.
Acosta, a native of Cuba and an artist by training, says her philosophy is simple — anyone can be an artist, and art has valuable skills to offer like critical thinking and problem solving. Workshops in areas like theater, dance and painting are already having an impact on youth.
"Many of the children that have passed through here are now studying at North Charleston Elementary School for the Arts," she said. "There are other children that want to go to the (South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities), which is an excellent school."
Art Pot was founded in February 2015 but didn't have a permanent home until March 2017, when volunteers finished renovating an old church located at 5909 Loftis Road to house a small theater with seating for 50 people, rooms for classes, community services and an art exhibit space.
They marked their grand opening with a production of "Romeo and Juliet Street," a modernized version of the William Shakespeare play adapted by Acosta and presented in Spanish.
"Everything that you see here is done by our organization," Cotton said. "I don't think there's another organization (like this) that started without a grant or any other money. We started with zero and we're still nearly broke maintaining this. A nonprofit begins with a budget. We started with our hands."
Those modest beginnings helped create strong bonds among Art Pot's members because everyone had to learn how to work together, she said.
Cecilia Marquez, a grandmother whose two daughters and five granddaughters are also involved with the center, called Art Pot a hidden treasure.
"What I've liked best is how it involves families," Marquez said. "While the children are having fun, we're teaching them (good) values. ... We're forming people with a good social consciousness."
But as important as building bonds among members is, Acosta and Cotton say one of last year's most important accomplishments revolved around overcoming the fear sometimes felt by members of the Spanish-speaking community toward government agencies.
To that end, a group of 30 Art Pot members graduated from the North Charleston Citizens Public Safety Academy in December. It was the first time the 10-week course — which immerses participants in law enforcement, firefighting, code enforcement and building inspection — was offered entirely in Spanish.
The class is the latest example of how local officials are trying to better serve the Hispanic community, Cotton said.
"It hasn't been a one-sided effort," she said. "We've worked together to get to this level of confidence and respect."
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey praised the nonprofit's work in a statement to The Post and Courier.
"Art Pot is a great partner with the city, connecting Spanish-speaking residents of North Charleston with city resources, while encouraging engagement in civic activities and public meetings," Summey said. "It has been wonderful to see Art Pot participants willing and excited to learn about city services and how the day-to-day operations of the city impact their lives."
Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome, who has known Cotton since 2005, said the center's current success is built on years of outreach in the community, and she encouraged residents of all backgrounds to support their efforts.
"Don't think of it just as a Hispanic theater," Jerome said. "The dream is to have all races under one roof. They're welcomed with open arms."
Now that Art Pot has established itself with a permanent location, Acosta and Cotton say they have high hopes for 2018.
They're working to add membership and to expand outreach from the North Charleston-Hanahan area. While workshops and classes used to be free, Cotton said they're now charging $20 per family each month to help pay bills.
Acosta hopes this year will bring more opportunities to concentrate on building camaraderie in the Hispanic community and emphasizing communication.
"I want our projects to focus on that — communication; to know how to say who we are as people, as Hispanics. ... The Hispanic community here is still small and we don't have much influence or support. We need residents to know that we're here."