By Anna Grace Moore 

Photos by Jacob Garrett & Kim Nguyen

The most beautiful gardens boast varieties of flowers and foliage, sporting vibrant colors and decadent aromas. Variety, what makes each flower unique, is also what makes a garden so special–similar to the strength in the diversity of communities.

Kyle Tyree is the founder of InToto Creative Arts–a Birmingham-based nonprofit that provides opportunities for artistic expression, connection and healing for people affected by social and economic hardships.

Kyle had been volunteering at Firehouse Shelter for five years when one of the shelter’s caseworkers, Dena Dickerson, approached him about creating a workforce development program to teach job skills for those in need. While he liked the idea, Kyle says he lacked the resources needed to implement the program.

He began searching for other ways to help the Firehouse Shelter’s community, and after reading “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Kyle decided to try theatre therapy. Dr. van der Kolk worked with a group of veterans suffering from PTSD and had them act out the roles they were given, in order to help them express their hidden traumas.

Oftentimes, it is easier to mimic reality than it is to face it because freedom of expression allows one to make sense of such ugly truths without having to relive what hurt him most. Kyle contacted Anne Rygiel, who was then the Firehouse Shelter’s executive director, and Tam DeBolt of Terrific New Theatre, and together, the three spearheaded the mission for creating a community focused on inclusion and creative expression.

In early 2019, the trio developed a theatre curriculum they could implement at the Firehouse Shelter, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted their operations. Because theatre is a vulnerable thing both to teach and to learn, Kyle put teaching theatre on the backburner and focused his efforts on creative writing–a strong suit of his.

He contacted the state of Alabama’s  Ashley M. Jones, who put him in touch with Laura Secord. Laura helped teach some of InToto’s first classes, whose emphasis was on life mapping.

“Life mapping is when we ask them to think about a period of time in their lives from the age of 9-13, which is the age we start processing trauma in a mental sense,” Kyle says. “We ask them to draw a neighborhood from that time period.”

Visibly seeing the environments in which the participants grew up proved effective in helping them identify some of the sources of their trauma. The nonprofit’s volunteers met every week at the Firehouse Shelter in the weeks that followed, introducing new techniques for participants to embrace vulnerability and healing.

One of Kyle’s favorite success stories happened only three weeks into the program. Laura showed a video of poet Danez Smith reading some of his work as he identified as black, queer and HIV positive. After the video, an attendee, Terrance, worked up the courage to share his identity not just with the group, but also as one of the first times in his life he felt safe to do so.

“This means we’re creating a space safe enough to be vulnerable,” Kyle says. “It can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference, but when things like that happen, you realize it’s worth it.”

Four years later, InToto Creative Arts is now a thriving nonprofit, offering 10 different classes at seven different partnering organizations that specifically cater to the needs of people affected by homelessness, incarceration, mental health challenges, disabilities and more. Teachers will meet participants at locations to teach these classes, helping alleviate the stress of transportation.

Living in a shelter or transient environment can be isolating. One of the first steps to finding community is to build relationships with others.

By introducing the public to the talents of many members of a more stigmatized community–who are still members of the community as a whole–the nonprofit believes this will help remove some of the stigma surrounding homelessness, incarceration and mental illness.

People are more than the stereotypes often afflicted onto them. It’s quite evident through tangible expressions of creativity.

“InToto helps break down walls in the Birmingham community and sees people for who they are,” Dani Parmar, InToto Creative Arts’ programming director says. “People from very different walks of life come together to listen and learn from each other, allowing us to see our shared humanity.”

InToto’s annual “Our Voices” showcase spotlights the artwork and stories of individuals affected by such challenges, giving them the opportunity to share their talents–their poetry, music and art–with the community.

If a piece is sold, the artist receives 80-percent of the proceeds with the remainder benefiting the nonprofit’s missions.

In 2023 alone, InToto Creative Arts served more than 1,200 people–many who have gone on to receive permanent housing. The nonprofit currently offers classes in visual arts, creative writing, theatre, movement and more.

“It’s important for us to not go in there with the idea that we’re trying to rescue people,” Lauren Nicholson, vice president of InToto Creative Arts says. “It’s about creating a safe space and a sense of respite and a time for connection, where we get to show up as humans with our own struggles and provide this space for people who often aren’t treated with dignity and respect.”

One gentleman, Abraham, attended Lauren’s movement class nearly every week. He often spoke of how much he looked forward to coming to class, saying he loved it because the community made him feel loved.

Another participant, Zeb, came to the Firehouse Shelter already possessing such raw, innate talent. Dani says Zeb quickly became involved in several of her visual arts classes, telling her that hope was not an emotion he thought he’d feel again.

“‘Some of us have given up on life after all of the hardships, and InToto makes me feel like I might be worth something,’” Dani says, quoting Zeb.

Every week, she says, InToto Creative Arts sees therapeutic transformations in their artists. The InToto team attributes this emotional response to participants being treated lovingly with the gentle reminder that everyone belongs in and has a purpose to fulfill within the community.

“We give permission and encouragement to freely express yourself,” Dani says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

A year ago, one participant named A.C. was homeless, living at the Firehouse Shelter. He got involved with InToto’s visual arts classes and slowly began bonding with his newfound community.

Now, A.C. has permanent housing and is also serving as the nonprofit’s artist liaison, informing the organization’s staff on issues concerning participants and members of the homeless community.

Terrance, too, has worked hard to receive permanent housing. He is now employed with the Firehouse Shelter, helping serve his community.

“Community is a place of belonging–where we can show up as we are,” Lauren says. “My hope is that the people we work with feel seen and cared about, and the consistency feels meaningful and healing.”

By fostering community, InToto Creative Arts is helping people heal, find purpose and feel connected. If all a community needs to cultivate fellowship is love, then the best gardeners are those willing to befriend others in need.

Visit to learn more information about how to get involved. Patrons can also follow InToto Creative Arts on Facebook and @intotoarts on Instagram to stay up to date on events.

Shelby County Schools Alumni Give Back to the Community

Kyle Tyree, (Briarwood Christian School), Lauren Nicholson (Chelsea High School) and Dani Parmar (Alabaster City Schools) never met until they all became involved, working with Intoto Creative Arts. Yet, they all attribute their desire to bless others in need to the inclusive atmosphere and emphasis on community they grew up in within their respective schools.

The Meaning of “Intoto”

“Everybody needs art in my opinion. The word, intoto, can be translated to mean ‘all inclusive.’ It fit because we’re including stigmatized communities.”
-Kyle Tyree, InToto Creative Arts’ founder

Community Partnerships

-Firehouse Ministries
-Pathways Home
-Faith Chapel
-1920 Club
-Offender Alumni Association
-Alabama Prison Arts+ED Project (Auburn University)