WESTERLY — When Judea-Jon Balmonte entered Westerly High School as a freshman, he hoped he could find a way to transform a dream into reality. On Thursday he and some of his classmates as well as teachers and administrators celebrated a donation to the school that could make his aspiration as tangible as the shirt on his back.

Balmonte and the other members of the school's printmaking class were on hand for a ribbon cutting to mark the donation of about $36,000 worth of equipment for a screen printing studio at the school. The primary donor is Ivory Ella, the Westerly-based clothing store known for its elephant-themed merchandise. Students have already started using the equipment to produce custom designs on T-shirts and signs.

"I really thought this would be an opportunity for me to actually go after the thing that I was looking forward to since freshman year … making my own clothing," Balmonte, now a senior said.

Balmonte, 18, co-president of WHS' Future Business Leaders of America chapter, is developing his own branded line of clothing as his senior project. The work combines his interests in art, design, and business. "Making my own line of clothing and branding it so other people can love the shirts that I do. That's what I wanted to do. I never really had cool clothing as a kid," he said.

With the new donations, the class is now outfitted with two four-color presses, two two-color presses, a heater, darkroom, wash-out station, digital vinyl cutter, and art program software.

"This is basically the entire screen printing process that I have over at Ivory Ella only a little bit smaller. It's an amazing feeling for me to know that I might be able to give an opportunity to one of you guys by bringing this to the high school. For me it's really an honor to bring this to you," said Jay Reid, Ivory Ella's print production specialist.

The donation is part of the company's Pay it Forward contest. Westerly High School students created a video explaining why they wanted the studio and how they would benefit. The company selected the video as the winner and the school became the fourth to receive a screen-printing studio from Ivory Ella and several other apparel print manufacturers.

As part of the contest the school started a canned food drive Thursday and collected more than 280 items and an additional $300 in cash that will be donated to the WARM center. In return for the food and cash donations of at least $10, students received the school's annual "Turkey Day" T-shirt. This year's shirt for the annual Thanksgiving game with Stonington was designed and produced by students using the new studio. The school also agreed, as part of the Ivory Ella contest, to donate a percentage of any profit it makes from T-shirt and merchandise sales to charitable organizations.

Assistant Principal Kevin Cronin said the studio is an addition to the school's career readiness initiative. "This will help produce students who are going to be skilled at this ... and be workforce-ready," he said.

Reid, who was first exposed to the industry as a teenager, agreed, noting that screen printing companies struggle to find experienced workers.

"It's very hard to find somebody that has a screen printing background," Reid said. "It's a great little thing to have in your back pocket. It's never something I thought I'd make a career out of but ultimately it fell right into my lap and it made me very successful."

During the celebration a group of the school's business students stopped into the studio to pick up boxes of the Turkey Day shirts.

"The connection between departments is exactly what we dream of when the marketing kids are promoting it and the business kids are selling it and these kids are producing it, and we've got art kids that are designing it. That comprehensive approach to learning is really what kids should be doing," Westerly High School Principal Michael Hobin said.

Cronin, Hobin and Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau praised Ivory Ella and the other companies for the donation. "This would have taken years to budget for and build and we would have had sporadic interest. With all of this right way, it's generating a lot of interest," Hobin said.

Students are now able to take their ideas through the entire creative process, said Christopher Kelley, the art teacher who teaches the screen printing class. Starting with the initial idea, students can go next door, where Kelley teaches a digital design class equipped with 18 iMacs running Adobe Creative Cloud.

"We have the total process down. That's pretty neat to see it go from an idea to the process, apply the techniques, to a finished product. It's pretty amazing," Kelley said.

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