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If you can't find something to do at the Imagination Celebration's Imagination Space, you're not trying hard enough.

The 20,000-square-foot community center at The Citadel mall is a kaleidoscope. A friendly dragon perched atop a colorful, multilayered "cake" greets visitors. Shelves brim with supplies. Artwork covers the walls and dangles from the ceiling.

It's a playhouse for people of all ages and abilities.

"One of the most important things for people to understand is that imagination is for all ages — it's not just for kids," says Deborah Thornton, Imagination Celebration's executive director. "If the adults in our community are not engaging their creative thinking, if they're not stretching outside their typical box, then they're not keeping their minds open for solving problems."

Popular programs

One of the nonprofit's most visible offerings is the What If festival, a one-day shindig each September that showcases our community's creativity. In 2011, 80-plus booths spread from the Pikes Peak Center into six blocks of downtown Colorado Springs, with crowds enjoying hands-on opportunities like catapulting water balloons, making clouds in bottles, and steering a robot.

"Part of the reason for the festival was that we heard too many people just wringing their hands about the economy," Thornton says. "We thought, 'Let's celebrate our strengths. Let's turn things around by not wringing our hands.'"

When approaching potential festival participants, Thornton often hears the response: "I don't know what we could do." But "we can look at a business and see all the possibilities of what they could be sharing," Thornton says. "They don't necessarily see it, because they're so close to it."

Another popular program is the Over the Moon Family Theater. Its 11th season launched with Lil' Pete and the Coyote, a westernized Peter and the Wolf, and includes Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters in February.

These activities only hint at what Imagination Celebration has achieved since 1986. First under the umbrella of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, then Pikes Peak Library District, it became a freestanding nonprofit in 2000. Thornton led programs and served on the board, then joined the staff before becoming director in 2006.

She points with pride to the statistics: 400 programs in 70 small towns in southern Colorado in the last eight years, part of Imagination Celebration's mission to foster the arts in underserved communities.

About a dozen creative types take three-year programs into schools — so far, 75 in all local districts, plus Cañon City, Castle Rock, Cripple Creek and the eastern plains. Thornton compares the collaboration to planting seeds, then watching to see if the programs grow.

They're flourishing.

"We cultivated the soil and they're growing on their own," she says.

Thornton gets an evangelical light in her eyes when she talks about augmenting education with the creative and performing arts.

"We need creative thinkers, we need collaborators, we need people with social skills, we need people who know their feelings and how to express them, we need people who appreciate that we're all different. So that's why, when you look at Imagination Celebration, if I had to say one word, it would be 'connections,' because it's about connecting people with each other, connecting people to resources."

At a monthly meeting, the region's cultural movers and shakers share ideas and news. Those gatherings reinforce relationships built through programs with a staggering variety of local organizations, such as Ormao Dance Company, Colorado Springs Children's Chorale and Pikes Peak Writers.

Programs offered at Imagination Space serve groups including at-risk teens, people with developmental disabilities, and returning military and their families. Thornton recently talked with a military wife who said iSpace saved her husband's life and their marriage. He participated in a post-traumatic stress disorder workshop there, in cooperation with Bemis School of Art and AspenPointe, which resulted in a Military Creative Expressions exhibit.

This is Imagination Celebration's third Give! appearance, and funds will help keep those programs free and low-cost. The organization also accepts donations of gently used supplies, dysfunctional electronics, and books and videos that can be sold to raise money.

Power to the people

In 2010 alone, hundreds of community-minded helpers contributed nearly 2,000 unpaid hours. Thornton looks for volunteers with a "spirit of service" who are willing to learn and solve problems.

They assist Thornton and her staff: Sean Anglum, who handles public relations and programs; Michaela Hightower, who oversees the theater programs; Amanda Johnson, who graduated from über-volunteer to part-timer; and Dan Wecks, the volunteer-in-chief who happens to be Thornton's husband.

They all wear several hats — preferably in unexpected shapes, colors and textures — and work long hours. But that's OK.

"We're energized and inspired because we see the impact," Thornton says. "You see it on a child's face. I have a picture of a child standing here and saying, 'This is the best day of my life.'"

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, they welcome visitors to Imagination Space in The Citadel's upper level, near Dillard's. Across the hall, the 3,400-square-foot Celebration Place houses stage facilities.

Many of the 50,000 annual visitors are from other regions of the country, and Thornton says she often hears people say they don't have anything like this at home.

"I would say that, more than an art space, we're a service-oriented space. We're about serving the human population of all ages."


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