Kroc Center Arts Programs Bring the Community to the Corps
By: David Ibata
As the Kroc center serving the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia was preparing to open in April 2014, its organizers sought an after-school activity for children different from the Title I programs already offered at area schools. Music struck a receptive chord.
“HeartStrings,” violin lessons for children in first and second grade, “was thought up by our advisory board and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra before our building even opened,” said Marleen Mallory, assistant program director for The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Hampton Roads.
Children arrive after school “and can work on homework until 4:30,” Mallory said. “Then, they have a hot meal, a full dinner, through a USDA program; and finally, they receive one hour of violin instruction on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.” String instructors from the Norfolk Public Schools conduct the lessons – Mallory formerly worked for the schools and enlisted her peers to help – “and once a month, Virginia Symphony musicians come in to provide additional coaching.”
Hampton Roads is an example of how the seven Kroc centers in the Southern Territory use performing arts like music and dance, and visual arts like painting and pottery, to reach and enrich their communities. They weave the arts into their after-school programs, offer affordable art and music instruction to youngsters and adults, and mount productions like concerts and musicals to showcase their homegrown talent. It’s part of the mission of the Kroc centers to expose residents of underserved communities to activities otherwise beyond their reach.
“The most anyone pays is $15 a week,” Mallory said of HeartStrings. “You can’t even get one private lesson at that price. And for families receiving free lunch or other public assistance, it’s $5 a week. The instruments are provided for free.”
HeartStrings started with 30 children in the fall of 2014. The first year, the Kroc center purchased 30 quarter-, half- and three-quarter-size violins; the second year, a local company, Angelico Violins, donated another 30.
“At this point, it’s just violin,” Mallory said. “We’re interested in adding cellos, basses and violas to the program, so we’re looking for smaller-sized instruments and actively seeking grant money to pay for them.”
HeartStrings now has 44 youngsters; 12 have been with the program from the beginning. Mallory’s dream – “a huge, big, big dream,” to be sure – is to someday have a full youth orchestra with a full complement of strings, brass and woodwind instruments.
Aaron Windham, music and creative arts coordinator at the Kroc center in Biloxi, Mississippi, sees three audiences: “From after school to home school to serving children from broken homes, these three areas are the main ones in our community that we serve through the arts.”
“There’s something for everybody, from the visual arts to music, and last year, we started theater,” Windham said. “And we do a lot of these activities with the corps. We have a night set aside for music, drama and dance, free to any corps members who regularly attend church on Sundays.”
The Biloxi center opened in September 2011, and its after-school arts and music programs launched the following year with upwards of 30 children, a figure that’s stayed steady. “That’s about as many as we can take every semester, though we’re working to grow that,” Windham said.
The center offers visual arts to children 3 and up, and performing arts to youngsters 5 and up. It served more than 800 people in November, many of them parents of children already enrolled.
“We’ve done daddy-daughter painting nights,” Windham said. “We just did a mother-son pottery night. Every third Thursday, we just started Family Art Night. And we do home school art classes for ages 4 and up.”
An after-school program picks up kids at school and brings them to the Kroc center for snacks, homework and, for those who wish, music and arts programs (the sports and aquatics departments have similar offerings). The center also has started a holiday tradition of Christmas musicals – “Charlie Brown” in 2015, the first year, and “A Christmas Carol” in 2016.
“Next fall, we’re hoping to have after-school arts and music academies,” Windham said. “Both would meet twice a week, and they’d be affordable. Most of the kids are already here four or five days a week; this will give them something to do that’s educational and fun.”
With home school families, he said, “there wasn’t much around for them, so we offer different activities for them – music, the visual arts, swimming, even Spanish classes. We probably serve 50 or more kids a week in that program.”
When the Kroc center in Memphis, Tennessee, had a casting call in 2013 for its first stage show, “we had 10 people at our first audition, and we were able to cast every one,” said Lindsay Mitchell of Stage Door Productions. “We have an audition coming up in January, and 173 people are auditioning. To make that jump in a really short time has really been fantastic.”
Stage Door was founded as a nonprofit program partner for the Kroc center. Mitchell, previously the arts coordinator for the center, was named executive director. This season’s productions include “Shrek Jr.: the Musical,” “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” and “Cinderella.” The center also hosts performing arts-themed summer camps; last summer’s production was “101 Dalmatians.”
“We were looking for ways, as all Kroc centers do, to fill the needs of the community,” Mitchell said.
“We didn’t really have a children’s and teen theater here, nor one that was fully family friendly. Everything we do here is open to any age group. … You know that if you come to see a production here, you and your whole family will be comfortable.”
The group seeks to reflect its community.
“Memphis has a tremendous performing arts community,” Mitchell said. “We have a huge diversity of cultures – of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans – and you don’t always see them on stage. One of the things we do here is, we really are an inclusive theater. We give opportunities to people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to play other roles. We really think Memphis’ diversity is represented on our stage.”
Being inclusive also means “we work with children and cast members with disabilities, from autism to Asperger (syndrome).” The theater adjusts sound, lighting and other effects so certain performances are sensory friendly.
“That all started with a child in a show who was autistic, and none of his classmates from his school thought they could come see him. Well, we felt that wasn’t fair – so we adapted that show so his friends could see him perform.”
“We have a huge passion for The Salvation Army and the work they do,” Mitchell said. Stage Door is working with Captain Zachary Bell, senior Kroc center officer and commander of the Memphis Metropolitan Area Command, “about the possibility of extending the arts program to the shelters, so we can work with kids there in after-school settings.”