Emily’s Fund “Simply Staying Afloat” Grants

  • Emily List.   SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 6/22/2020 10:07:38 AM

The Emily List Fund for nine years has awarded grants to performing artists working on specific projects with those who are disadvantaged. 

These projects unfold one dance, one play, one song at a time in offices, town halls and theaters — always with people working together and often with an audience.  

But what happens when a pandemic eliminates these live projects for those who already are dealing with major difficulties like sickness, poverty, disability or mental illness? 

What happens when they can’t experience in person these projects that make their lives better and brighter?

The pandemic has forced the performing artists we support to find creative ways to make a difference, to shift high-touch programs to high tech — and to stay alive even without live programs.

They’re on a new journey, and Emily’s Fund is going with them. 

The Fund was established in 2012 in memory of Emily List, an actor, dancer and lover of the performing arts, who lost her life to a rare form of cancer at 26. In its first nine years, it will have awarded $60,000 in grants of $1,000 or more to 25 groups, many of them local and all of them now looking to find new ways forward. 

In recognition of their efforts, Emily’s Fund is giving $1,000 grants to five groups we’ve supported multiple times in past years to help sustain them as they work to stay useful and relevant to those they serve.  

Whole Children regularly gives teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to explore their passion for acting, dancing and singing by creating and rehearsing shows, which are then staged to sold-out audiences. Valle Dwight, director of development and communications, says these performances demonstrate to the community “that people with disabilities should not be relegated to the sidelines in theater or in life.” The March 2020 show, “What a Feeling,” had to be canceled a week shy of opening night, but Dwight says the goal is to reboot it in 2021. And in the meantime, day programs are offering online classes and support.   

Enchanted Circle Theater works with schools in Holyoke and Springfield to create and perform original theater pieces linked to curriculum. Executive Director Priscilla Kane Hellweg says: “Our award-winning arts integration programs ... expand the way teachers teach and students learn.” Enchanted Circle currently is working to make arts-inspired education accessible remotely in western Massachusetts for children in its school-based programs. Until schools can reopen, students can access arts integrated lessons in math, science, social studies and English language arts on their digital platforms.  

The SciTech Band, “The Pride of Springfield,” and Director Gary Bernice have built a high-energy, high-quality band in a city with the sixth-highest child poverty rate in the United States. The band has created “an environment through music that challenges and motivates students to strive for excellence in all facets of their lives.” Since January 2007, it’s grown from 20 students to more than 500, and those who join the band for more than one year are three times more likely to stay in school. Everyone wants to get the band back together but until that happens, SciTech is teaching students how to play their instruments on a distance learning teaching channel.    

Born Dancing, Inc., led by founder Melissa van Wijk, provides high-level dance instruction for students with disabilities and other underserved communities. The group produces original full-scale performances in which students with physical and intellectual disabilities appear with professional dancers, who teach classes that transition into its productions. The students perform and work with professionals on every aspect of design and production of the shows. Van Wijk had to cancel the May performance at New York’s Flea Theater, but she still has hope for the December show, and she’s sharing videos of the dancers at work in their homes.  

The Me2/Orchestra, a classical music ensemble based in Boston, is comprised of musicians from 8 to 86 with mental health issues. This one-of-a-kind ensemble performs together “with acceptance, patience and support” at rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities and other venues — and now offers some virtual rehearsals and concerts. The orchestra, founded by Music Director and Conductor Ronald Braunstein, is the subject of a documentary to be shown on public television this fall: “Orchestrating Change: a film about the world’s only orchestra for people living with mental illness.”   

Me2 Executive Director Caroline Whiddon says the shift from in-person to online has not been easy: “Not only are we navigating how to best serve our musicians and audiences during a pandemic — we are also strategizing how to simply stay afloat.”

So 2020, we’ve decided, will be the year of Emily’s “Simply Stay Afloat Grants.”

Not so simple really, but in this time of pandemic and racial strife, shouldn’t we all be helping each other stay afloat?

Karen List is Emily’s mom and a professor in the UMass Journalism Department. For more information, visit emilylistfund.com.
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