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Enchanted Circle Theater programs seen as essential to schools

Date: 6/2/2009

By Lori Szepelak


HOLYOKE -- Morgan School math teacher Lorie Banks believes in empowering children to express themselves through the arts, and she's not alone.

Banks, along with more than 400 area residents who attended the Enchanted Circle Theater (ECT) fundraiser on May 12 at the Log Cabin, believes in the importance of giving a voice to children and she hopes in the coming school year to work art into her math classes.

"I'm interested in developing a curriculum for my students along with Enchanted Circle Theater," she said.

ECT is a non-profit, multi-service, professional educational theater company which engages, enhances and inspires learning through the arts.

Executive Artist/Director Priscilla Kane Hellweg provided ECT's "long view" to the audience, noting that creative expression through the arts is needed now more than ever.

"I believe, and I have devoted my professional life to this belief, that if we invest in the education of our young people today, developing their creative and critical thinking skills, promoting their sense of community and personal responsibility, and teaching them positive communication skills, then they will rise above hunger, homelessness, violence, bigotry and poverty tomorrow," Kane Hellweg said.

Rachel Kuhn, ECT's director of Development and Communications, concurred.

"So many of the youth we work with are navigating life's most disturbing realities -- homelessness, hunger, abuse," she added. "We need to give our young people the tools they'll need to rise above whatever struggles come their way."

Both women have a loyal following and agreed that engaging individuals across the valley in a multitude of ways can ensure that children in particular are exposed to programming that will enlighten them.

"Enchanted Circle Theater has been called the antidote to the drop out rate," Kane Hellweg said. "After 29 years in the field, I know this to be true. And in cities such as Holyoke and Springfield, where the drop out rates are among the highest in the state, ECT offers positive solutions."

Their supporters were eager to share their sentiments during a reception which was sponsored by Atlas Technology Consulting, the William O. and Carole P. Bailey Family Foundation, Open Square LLC and Whalen Insurance.

"Arts and education all the way," Terez Waldoch, a four-year member of ECT's board of directors, said.

Sisters Linda Cessarini and Lorraine Gorham are big believers in Holyoke, and especially enjoy supporting ECT and its arts programs. Gorham is the proprietor of Lorraine's Fashion Showcase on High Street.

"I believe in Holyoke and am a long-time supporter of ECT," Gorham said, adding she was "thrilled" to see so many young people in the audience and participating in the festivities.

Performers included Holly Ghazey's fifth grade class from the Jackson Street School in Northampton, showcasing how their "creative classroom" project with ECT blossomed into a short play on King Philip's War.

The biggest hit of the evening came when several young adults from the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium read their personal philosophies of life, based on the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." ECT has been working with the young people for the past three years through a program called Theater Arts and Life Skills. The consortium is a non-profit organization that creates conditions to enhance the lives, and make possible the dreams, of people living in transition.

Emmanuel Sanders of Springfield, was among the consortium performers who believe there are things that make life worth living.

"Life shouldn't be taken for granted," Sanders said. "It is a blessing to grow and develop like a seed that is planted. Life is a gift you are born with."

Consortium performers also included Amber Fitzgerald, Amanda Martinez, Jay-R Rosa and Christine Wiechec.

Their segment, which received a standing ovation, ended in unison with "Perception and acceptance. We aim to achieve. This I believe!"

Andrew Melendez, a fourth year Elms College student, also shared his perspective on how ECT changed his life when he was in the fifth grade at the Morgan School in Holyoke. Melendez credits a performance of "The Gold Coin" with ECT instructors for helping him boost his self-esteem and learn how to channel his energy.

"We are all in the play of life," Melendez said. "The experience gave me a spark that is still burning bright inside of me."

As the evening came to a close, Steve Bandarra, president of ECT's board of directors, reminded the audience that ECT has an invaluable impact on the lives of children across the valley, and during the past two years, has worked with more than 10,000 young people through creative programming.

Following Bandarra's remarks, approximately 45 people joined ECT's Sustainability Circle, and 94 percent of the audience made a contribution to ECT.

For individuals and organizations interested in donating, collaborating or volunteering with ECT, contact Kuhn at 534-3789 or visit ECT's office is located at 4 Open Square Way.

Kane Hellweg and Kuhn will also host several Inside Enchanted informal and interactive one-hour demonstrations of their creative education programming on June 11 at noon, July 7 at 9:30 a.m. and July 29 at 9:30 a.m. Persons interested in attending one of the free sessions are asked to R.S.V.P. to Kuhn.

"The work we do inspires children to want to learn, to communicate, to participate and collaborate with each other," Kuhn said. "ECT's work in the classroom builds the 21st century learning skills essential for young people to be successful throughout their schooling and, ultimately, in the work place."