Born in California, his father’s job brought Kurtis Flanders and his family to the Chain of Lakes. Flanders grew up here and developed a love for the community, though his disposition didn’t start so sunny. His teenage years were a formative time. His roots in volunteerism, civic-mindedness, and ultimately leadership began to develop about ten years ago when Kurtis was a sophomore in high school. At the time he considered himself an “at-risk youth.” He reflected on that time, saying, “I saw all the bad in the world.”
Flanders remembers walking into an art gallery, it was a world different from his own – and he wanted to be a part of it. There, he met Jane Waters the Executive Director for Arts Ensemble, Tinia Clark the Executive Director and Program Facilitator for Sidestreet Art Beat, along with artist Trent Manning. “It was an opportunity to get a spectrum of mentors,” he said. “Art was a big deal for me. […] It still is.”
The studio was just the beginning of his transformation. He admitted it wasn’t until around age 19 that his outlook changed entirely. “At a time when I saw mostly the things that are wrong with this world, I still had the difficult path of learning everything I needed to learn and unlearning everything I needed to unlearn,” he said. “The awesome part was that Arts Ensemble helped guide my appreciation not only for art but in the non-profit work they were doing. They allowed me to serve with them, grow, and make mistakes. I owe my roots to Arts Ensemble.”
Growing Positivity and Volunteerism
Flanders had the idea to start a collective using the talents and ideas of younger artists, musicians, photographers and the like to give back and put big ideas for the community into motion. It started as a Facebook group called, Becoming the Change where folks would discuss forward-thinking ideas around topics like clean energy and sustainable technology. Kurtis founded Growing Positivity in 2017 under the Arts Ensemble umbrella. Their collective handprint can be seen on such projects as the community garden in Florence Villa and working toward the return of the Lake Ina Mushroom.
Eventually, Flanders felt the need to branch off. “I wasn’t seeing what I really wanted which was more impact and more change through the arts,” he said. Last year, he created a do-good project called Loads of Love (LOL). The mission of the group is to “serve those who serve.” The initiative provides volunteers and resources to local nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and charitable organizations free of charge. “Loads of Love is a group of individuals and organizations that see the benefit of collaboration and sharing of resources for the greater good or the greater impact of our community,” said Flanders. “If your organization deals primarily with food, but you’re lacking food to give away, we connect you with resources and take care of that issue.”
LOL isn’t limited to helping organizations feed the hungry – they provide a gamut of resources. Their first big initiative was giving away 60 bikes at Smoke on the Water last year. They connect organizations with everything from toys, school supplies and teaching materials for afterschool programs, to child items like strollers and Pack ‘n Plays and pet products for the Humane Society.
Not only does he hold the title of founder of Loads of Love, but Flanders is also the primary delivery driver. He said, “In that span of ten years I’ve made it a goal to go out and meet these organizational leaders, get a sense of what they provide and what they do, and see how we can bring the resources to them, so they can focus on something else.”
Flanders is the Recreational Activities Director for the Public Education Partnership Kids Center, leading the PEP kids in art, music, sports, and other recreational activities. He uses electives as a way to get them excited about their academics. Without disregarding the importance of academics, he highlights the arts. “They say medicine, engineering, those things are noble pursuits, but we stay alive for art and poetry and for theatre and music. Those are our expression.” Flanders bridges the gap between electives and academics by teaching lessons like using math to figure out the odds of a sports team winning or losing or how physics and science can translate to art. He even initiated the PEP Door Project as an enrichment project in which students at the center and artists from around the state designed and painted doors that they’ve set up to separate sections of the open space at the PEP Kids Center.
Flanders is the Vice-Chair for the Cultural Arts Advisory Committee for the City of Winter Haven. As an active member of the advisory committee, he helps on projects like the little free libraries, city pianos, and the painted utility boxes around town. Flanders is also the Ministry Outreach Program Manager for the Haley Center and is trying to push the Chain of Gardens Project which aims to plant pollinator gardens across Winter Haven. One has been completed, and the second is in the works, he said.
If there is one cause he is most passionate about – it’s people. “Our personal connection to one another is very important. You as an individual define yourself more on how your collective surrounding defines than you do yourself most of the time,” he said. “The personal connection is more important to me than anything else because it’s all of us in this together.”
“When one teaches, two learn”
From at-risk youth to an active member of the community, Flanders says he has had many mentors along the way like Jane Waters with Arts Ensemble and Bobby Williams with Freedom Church whom he works with closely for Loads of Love. Then again – anyone can be a mentor. “I think one thing that makes great leaders is teachability,” said Flanders. “Even the kids that I teach, are teaching me. ‘When one teaches, two learn.’”
“I feel like everyone has something they can teach you and if you keep your mind open to that then you’re far more likely to keep expanding your consciousness,” he said.
External influences include Canadian clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and author Jordan Peterson as well as one of history’s greatest artists and inventors, Leonardo da Vinci – a man who engaged in an array of interest and study from art to engineering, mathematics, architecture, and early medicine. “That’s the mindset that I like – full spectrum,” said Flanders. “If you have that broad-spectrum interest in everything then you also get a better understanding that these are all little pieces of the puzzle that make up our reality, our existence, our world. Then you have more appreciation for everything else.”
A few things he appreciates when he can spare a few moments to take off the many hats he wears, include reading, research and writing his book. He enjoys exploring the United States by traveling around the country, indulging in nature photography during his travels.
Advice, Reflection, and Gratitude
For anyone interested in starting a project to better the community, the environment, humanity, or anything else – Flanders has advice. “Jump into whatever you’re interested in because even if you fail, that’s not a failure if you take it as a lesson,” he said.
If you’re passionate about seniors and their quality of life after retirement and don’t know how to give back, he suggested talking with them, spending time with them. “Take a step that you know you can do or that doesn’t cost you anything but your time,” he said. “You’re never going to know everything before, you’re not going to have all the resources before starting something. Start it and continuously make it better.”
Initiating impactful projects is a way Flanders likes to create and he wants to keep creating. He is actively building Loads of Love and plans to make it a standalone 501(c)(3) when the time is right. One day, he aspires to be an executive director of his own non-profit. For now, though, he is, “enjoying being alive, being a part of all this, creating what I can, that is hopefully benefitting rather than taking away.”
“Each day I’m working on being a little more grateful for everything. The ability to eat, talk, walk, and breathe without assistance. The hard times that become lessons or makes me appreciate the good times even more. My community and all the individuals that support my goals,” said Kurtis Flanders. “I’m even grateful that we all don’t agree and that we have differences. It makes the world more interesting and it helps define what I believe in or value.”
Loads of Love