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All About Community: Encore’s Healthy Play Initiative

Encore Stage and Studio

In the spirit of community, sharing, and giving, we want you to hear from four of our teaching artists that work with “the Healthy Play Initiative” (HPI), a program created in 2016 to partner with the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) to provide enriching creative play for the children of families experiencing food insecurity in Arlington. Read on to find out– from those closest to the program — just what makes HPI so special.

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Mara Stewart, Teaching Artist:“HPI is one of my favorite classes to teach. I feel like I always leave with a smile and a new experience. It has taught me so much about communication. Even when we can’t speak the same language, we are able to create a positive experience and learn from one and another. For most of the kids, this is their first time in a classroom setting. Healthy play focuses on engaging and dynamic activities. We sing, we dance, we color, we play outside, and we learn about healthy food choices. We focus on transitioning from one activity to the next, sharing and expressing ourselves. This program helps us meet kids in the community that we otherwise might not ever get to know. It is an amazing experience to see these children week after week and watch them grow. The first day we meet a child, they often don’t participate or speak- and after a few weeks they blossom. They are engaged, singing, and are excited to come to HPI, and to me–that is the best part.”

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Caolan Eder, Arts Apprentice:“To me, HPI is all about community. The children who participate get a chance to play together in a safe setting and make new friends, learning to cooperate in a group as they prepare for the structured environment of school. The program also helps with communication skills. Many of the children live in non-English-speaking homes and struggle to connect with people outside of their families, so finding new ways of interacting really expands their worlds. I remember well how one child’s whole face lit up when she and I discovered that we spoke a common language and could explain ourselves to each other. The parents and caregivers build community through HPI, as well. In addition to giving them a breather from the responsibilities that come with raising a family, the program allows adults to form a network of people with shared experiences.”

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Madaline Langston, Education Programs Manager:“HPI has made me more patient. Most of the children that I have had the pleasure of serving are learning English and are trying to do their very best. In the classroom, we focus on listening, focus, and engaging students’ motor skills. HPI is a way to provide social interaction with peers. They learn how to make friends. When I first meet most of our HPI participants, I’ve noticed that they usually only interact with their families or friends. I recall one young boy who had just arrived from Peru and did not speak English. I used my cell phone to translate Spanish to him and he smiled and then slowly pronounced Spanish words to me and I spoke to him in English. So cute and funny at the same time. From that point on, he came to the classes with a smile on his face.”

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Alana Gibson, Arts Apprentice:“ I’ve become more attentive to the children as people and not just children who are unaware of their surroundings and circumstances. HPI is such a meaningful program because, for the most part, this is the only exposure to English speakers that the children get if they don’t go to classes. It’s also meaningful to Encore because it makes us more culturally aware and understanding, which helps us standout in the region and theater community. A few weeks ago, at the Arlington Mill location, we had a pair of siblings that came in because they didn’t have school. Mara, the lead teacher, told me that just a year ago, these siblings spoke almost no English. I was completely shocked because if she hadn’t told me that, I would have never known. So I’m sure that them coming to the program in combination with their language class helped with this amazing feat! In the classroom, I try to focus on being caring, but also keeping some structure. Most of the children are in the house all week with a parent so I want them to have a chance to run around, but I also want to start to help them get the understanding of how a classroom would work at a real preschool. I’m hopeful that HPI plays a real role in preparing these kids for school as they grow older.”

It’s through the generous support of our donors that we are able to bring programs like “the Healthy Play Initiative” to our community here in Arlington. We believe that this type of outreach and engagement is essential for our mission of bringing “Theatre by kids, for kids” to all types of children and families. The empathy, problem solving, and creativity born in the classroom extends far beyond remaining active in the arts–the skills gained through theatre education can last a lifetime.

Shout Mouse Press – Education: A Dream without Borders

“This is the story of how I got out of a hole.”

This is the opening line of an incredible story written and illustrated by Erminia, a young immigrant from El Salvador. At fifteen, Erminia’s mother gave her a stark choice: stay with the family but endure a life of poverty, violence, and a bleak future, or embark on a dangerous journey alone to America in pursuit of a good education and a better life.

Despite her love for her family, Erminia decided her only choice was to leave El Salvador so she could further her education. She spent five days in a detention center in Mexico but persisted. She walked for three days and two nights across the desert– in her socks, with one small bottle of water. After several weeks, she managed to cross the Rio Grande and find her way to the United States.

As Erminia explains, “I want people to understand that we are here because we are fighting for education, for opportunity. We are not criminals. In reality, I’m here fighting for my dreams.”

When Erminia asked her immigration lawyer what she could do to compensate for her services, the lawyer answered with a challenge: become a lawyer herself. Erminia has taken this to heart and is currently a freshman in college, studying to become an immigration lawyer so she can help others find their way out of their own “holes.”

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I met Erminia a few weeks ago at our launch event for Voces sin Fronteras (Voices without Borders) — a remarkable book written and illustrated in graphic novel form by sixteen teenage immigrants from Latin America. Proceeds from the book sales support a scholarship fund for Latino youth immigrants.

Amidst today’s highly charged debate on immigration, this book provides a rare chance to hear directly from youth who are often in the headlines but whose stories aren’t told in full. This collaboration between young people from the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Washington, D.C. and Shout Mouse Press, a nonprofit writing program and publishing house dedicated to amplifying unheard voices, has produced a powerful collection of stories about family, loss, ambition, and change that provide a much-needed human connection to the immigration crisis. These moving personal accounts challenge us and inspire greater empathy for the individuals who leave everything behind for an education.

As Erminia, Rosa, and Sebastian — three of these courageous authors — shared their stories in the back corner of a DC bookstore, my eyes welled up with tears more than once as I listened to the hardships and heartache they endured in search of a better life in this country.

Their quest for a better life that hinged upon the opportunity for a quality education has borne fruit. Erminia, Rosa, and Sebastian are all currently enrolled in college, pursuing their dreams of becoming a lawyer, a doctor, and a graphic designer.

I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants. My father left Taiwan with a few dollars in his pocket and journeyed in a cramped freighter for 52 days to further his education in America. His story is not uncommon, as the desire to educate children for a brighter future is universal. Immigrants from all corners of the globe uproot their lives and leave everything behind with this simple goal in mind.

As former UK Prime Minister and Education Commission Chair Gordon Brown has said: “Potential is best developed, talents best unleashed, and dreams best fulfilled at the point a child and teacher are brought together. Most of all, it is education — our ability to plan and prepare for the future — that gives us hope.”

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Providing this hope to the world’s children should not require the sacrifices that Erminia and countless others have made. What my own children take for granted — a free, quality education — should not be a matter of life or death for so many others.

Today, more than 260 million children are not in school. If the world does not wake up to this tragedy, by 2030, half of the world’s young people — 825 million — will be unprepared for the workplace of the future. We must recognize the full human and economic costs of an uneducated populace, and find the will in developing and donor countries alike to prioritize and increase the funding of education.

Children should not have to choose between their families and an education. They should not have to risk their lives and walk across the desert without shoes to get a place in a decent school. The world must recognize education as a human right, a civil right, and an economic imperative — and act accordingly.

The hopes and dreams sparked by educating hungry young minds know no bounds. As Rosa, the young immigrant from Guatemala studying to be a doctor, writes:

“No matter where you start from, those who dream of the impossible can achieve the unthinkable.”

Lana Wong is the Community Impact and Partnerships Director at Shout Mouse Press.