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Julie Austin-Witcher, Mrs. Virginia, has a heart for art.
A Huddleston native and Staunton River High School graduate, Austin-Witcher earned her bachelor’s degree in theater at Lynchburg College and serves on the board of directors for Little Town Players (LTP). She played the office drunk in LTP’s recent production of 9 to 5, a musical.
“My bit was very comical,” she said.
This interest is why she’s collecting art supplies for Bedford Domestic Violence Services, Patrick Henry Boys and Girls Home and Miller Girls Home. The supplies have two purposes. Some will be back-to-school supplies; others will be for art therapy programs.
Austin-Witcher got the idea shortly after being named Mrs. Virginia. She participated in an event held by Bedford Domestic Violence Services at the Bower Center.
“I saw how easy it was to merge art with community services,” she said.
She also heard women, who had been victims of domestic violence, say how important art therapy was for them as they went through their difficult situations. Austin-Witcher could relate to this because art had helped her when her mother, father and a friend were all diagnosed with cancer the same year.
Her interest in art is why she chose saving the arts in school systems as her platform for her national pageant, which will take place in Williamsburg on Aug. 11.
Mrs. America is a pageant for married women. Austin-Witcher said its focus is on inner beauty as well as outer beauty and giving back to the community. Because the women are older than Miss America contestants, they tend to be more highly educated and accomplished.
Austin-Witcher did not go into theater professionally. She earned a master’s degree in communication disorders from Arkansas State University.
“I am a speech and language pathologist,” she said.
Austin-Witcher works for Amedysis Home Health. Her office is in Lynchburg and she covers a six county area, providing in-home therapy retraining people to swallow after they have had a heart attack, stroke or hip replacement.
Austin-Witcher said that 90 percent of people over 85 who break a hip develop a swallowing disorder. They end up spending so much time lying down that the muscles involved in swallowing become weak.
She’s married to Brett Witcher, the youth minister at Altavista First Baptist Church. Austin-Witcher said that all contestants in the Mrs. America pageant are escorted on stage by their husbands.
“He will be in a tuxedo on stage as well,” she commented.
The couple have started their own not-for-profit organization called Save Our heARTS. Its goal is to save arts in schools. Austin-Witcher said they are looking for ways to partner schools with arts organizations in their communities. She sees the possibility of after school programs, but would really like them to be in the school during the school day.
“To me, it’s all about that first experience — getting them hooked,” she said.
Art supply collection boxes are currently at the Bedford Central Library, the Forest, and Moneta/Smith Mountain Lake public libraries, Goose Creek Studio, on Court Street in Bedford and the Bedford Welcome Center. She will also be at the Chick-fil-A on Wards Road in Lynchburg on Aug. 5 to collect art supplies from noon until 2 p.m. Folks can bring donations and get a free cookie as well as meet and be photographed with Austin-Witcher.