Polk State Alumna Finds Her Purpose Helping Homeless Through The Arts

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

Joyce Irwin warns visitors that the paint on her hands and apron is dry, greeting them with a bear hug and excitement to show off the Repurpose Art Studio adorned with crafts of the homeless women who seek art therapy there.

She radiates pride and joy for the Lakeland studio, where she is a facilitator, providing not only art lessons, but also other support the women may need – from a listening ear to assistance with employment and housing.

Irwin is able to relate to the women, as she was once homeless herself, having battled substance abuse and a gambling addiction that cost her four years in the Florida prison system.

Today, she is a proud Polk State alumna who is successfully employed in the arts and serving the community.

“I have peace now that I have my degree, am able to do what I love, and help people while I’m doing it,” she said.

Irwin, 62, graduated in December 2015 with an Associate in Arts degree and Phi Theta Kappa honors.

“I have peace now that I have my degree, am able to do what I love, and help people while I’m doing it.”

Earning a college degree was a life-long goal for Irwin, who opted for a 30-year career in accounting providing bookkeeping services because “that’s what was going to put food on the table for my three kids,” she said. Like many Polk State students, raising a family and working a job prevented Irwin from pursuing her higher education until she had the time to do so.

In 2003, her accounting career came to an end. She didn’t enroll at Polk State until 2012. When asked what she was doing during those nine years, she says “surviving.”

Irwin was arrested in 2003 and charged with scheme to defraud for stealing from her employer. She was arrested again in 2004 and 2008 for grand theft.

After prison, she decided to return to school. She cleaned offices and received financial aid to pay for her courses.

“I needed a change,” Irwin said.

She comes from an art background. Her father was an artist, her mother was always crafty, and she dabbled in painting from time to time, so she enrolled in art classes at Polk State. The College’s affordable cost and convenient locations made it possible for Irwin — who lacks a car and faces financial struggles — to pursue her education.

During her time at the College, Irwin earned many awards and honors for her work, including Purchase Awards in painting, drawing, and photography at Polk State’s student art exhibitions.

Irwin described her favorite project while at Polk State as a series of masks she created in her Drawing I and Drawing II courses.

“We were asked to create a self-portrait. I created a mask because I felt hidden,” Irwin explained. “I don’t feel hidden anymore.”

Her education has allowed her to “do what I want to do.”

“We art,” she explained of the studio. “It fills my heart to see the women’s faces light up when they create something.”

Irwin works part time, three days a week at Repurpose Art Studio, which is funded by nonprofit ministry Gospel Inc. The studio started in 2013 in the attic of Mission Possible and moved about a year ago to its current location, a former Salvation Army complex that is now part of Mass Market owned by the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency.

“It fills my heart to see the women’s faces light up when they create something.”

The two-story building on Plum Street is fitted with a first-floor kitchen the women can use to cook and bake, and a common area with a computer the women can use to apply for jobs. The second floor boasts a large studio space with sewing machines and cabinets full of art supplies, where Irwin teaches up to 20 women a day – most from the nearby Talbot House – a wide variety of crafts, from painting to crocheting.

For the holidays, they’ve created paper snowflakes and holiday ornaments made from corks, among other items to be sold at the Downtown Lakeland Farmers Curb Market to raise money for the program.

Irwin began as a volunteer at the studio four years ago after Polk State Professor Holly Scoggins suggested she explore the new initiative.

She had started working on an Associate in Science degree by enrolling in some Digital Media Technology courses at the College, “but I felt like I needed to be here at the studio,” where she has found her purpose.

She hopes to one day further her education and relocate to Georgia to be with her granddaughter.

“But I’m not finished here yet,” Irwin said. “There is more good for me to do.”