The transformative power of the performing arts: Emily List Fund recognizes 4 ‘friends’ with grants

  • The Emily List Fund for Performing Arts Therapy is named in memory of Emily LIst Emily, an actor, dancer and lover of the performing arts, who lost her life at 26 to a rare form of pediatric sarcoma. Submitted photo

Published: 7/1/2022 7:58:01 PM
Modified: 7/1/2022 7:55:27 PM

“You gotta have friends,” as Bette Midler sings.

So the Emily List Fund for Performing Arts Therapy is recognizing four of its longtime friends with 2022 grants to use theater, music and dance to enrich the lives of their participants.

Three of these grant recipients — Whole Children in Hadley; the Sci-Tech Band, “the Pride of Springfield,” and Born Dancing in New York City — also received “Staying Afloat” grants from Emily’s fund to help them through the pandemic in both 2020 and 2021.

Whole Children’s Valle Dwight, director of development and communications, says the group “is definitely planning to be back in action with a 2023 spring theater production.”

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Whole Children, which helps teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, was forced to cancel its show, “WonkAvengers,” which was a mash-up of “The Avengers” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a few weeks before the performance date. The theater program was back in person in 2021 with the help of another one of Emily’s grants, but the performance was restricted to families for safety reasons.

Now in 2022, Dwight says a new theater director has been focusing on acting and improv skills, and the actors hope their show will be open to the public.

This is exactly the sort of work Emily’s Fund was established to support. The fund was started in 2012 in memory of Emily, an actor, dancer and lover of the performing arts, who lost her life at 26 to a rare form of pediatric sarcoma. Since its founding, it has given $70,000 to 25 performing arts groups, most of them local.

The recipients this year, like Whole Children, are all emerging from a year or two of isolation to what they hope will be another year of vibrant in-person public performances.

Another friend over the years has been the Sci-Tech Band, the “Pride of Springfield.” Over the past two pandemic years, as Band Director Gary Bernice and his co- directors created an online music program and delivered more than 400 instruments to students at home, Emily’s Fund helped the band rock on.

“Our students never gave up,” Bernice says. “Student leaders continued to rise up and take ownership of their band.” Fifty students have applied to be band leaders next year. About a third of the 1,500 students at Sci-Tech are in the band, and those students are three times more likely to stay in school than their non-band counterparts.

The pandemic put the band on Zoom for most of the 20-21 school year, but members were able to perform publicly this past year at the Springfield Community Jam and the World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast, both in downtown Springfield, as well as at their 15th annual Winterfest and ArtsAlive spring concerts.

Those public performances will continue and expand this year, in part with continuing support from Emily’s grants.

Another longtime friend is Melissa van Wijk and her Born Dancing troupe in New York City. Born Dancing provides high level dance instruction for students with physical and mental disabilities. These classes transition into shows in which students perform with professional dancers.

Born Dancing’s work also has been remote until this spring when it went to Queens for two dance education programs at special education schools and four “Inclusion in Dance” programs at Friends Academy.

The company plans a full scale production cast with professional dancers and young people from its education programs Dec. 13-18 at the Alvin Ailey Theater in New York. “Fingers and toes crossed,” Melissa says.

Finally, the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit will use its second grant from Emily’s Fund for another program matching cancer patients with their doctors for a night of confidence building and entertainment.

Karmanos received a grant in 2019 for “Dancing with Our Docs,” a program in which cancer patients danced with their oncologists. After a 2020 pandemic hiatus, the program returned its 2021 grant because the program had to be cancelled due to the continuing threat of COVID, especially to the immuno-compromised cancer patients.

But the event is back on schedule this October featuring patients dancing and lip synching with their oncologists, primary care doctors and support staff for an audience of a thousand people. According to Pat Keigher, regional director of the Karmonos Institute, these programs inspire and empower the patients, as well as others affected by cancer.

All of these efforts would resonate with Emily, who devoted most of her 26 years — her “wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver might describe it — to performing, teaching and reviewing theater and dance.

She believed with all her heart in the transformative power of the performing arts, and she’d be so proud that Emily’s Fund is helping others benefit from them as much as she did.

Karen List is Emily’s mom and a professor in the UMass Journalism Department. To learn more about Emily and her Fund and how to apply for a grant, see emilylistfund.org.
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