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Alexis Jenofsky ’17 had a difficult childhood. Growing up in a household plagued by addiction, Jenofsky found her escape when she became involved with school theatre. “Theatre slowly became my relief,” she says. “Now I can bring that feeling to others.”

As president of Albright’s chapter of the national nonprofit organization Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP)—the first chapter in the region—Jenofsky and her fellow executive board members are working to spread resources, information and knowledge of the arts to a wider audience, specifically to those who may not have an abundance of artistic opportunities available to them.

“When we talk about poverty we are talking about a holistic meaning of poverty,” says adviser and Albright artist in residence Jeffrey Lentz ’85. “ASTEP strives to reach those who are poor of spirit, access, voice, not just those who are poor in the pocket and stomach. This is about poverty in its many forms.”

According to the National Education Association, despite mounting evidence of its role in student achievement, arts education
is disappearing in the schools that need it most. A recent partnership between ASTEP and the Olivet Boys & Girls Club of Reading is helping to ensure that access to the arts and a positive environment in which to explore, create, learn and grow are available to all students.

“Because of the interdisciplinarity of our degrees, there’s a wonderful amalgamation of skills and opportunities with which to share,” says Lentz, who notes that ASTEP members are not simply viewed as artists, but as mentors as well. “Sharing art is a way to find a common vocabulary,” he adds.

Partners in the Arts

The partnership began last spring when ASTEP performed two shows at Olivet involving improv, art, music, spoken word and dance, and then invited the boys and girls to visit the Albright campus.

Faith Jones-Jackson ’18, a theatre and sociology major, was deeply moved by an Olivet student who approached her after the show. “A child came up to me and said she didn’t get to do creative things in school and that we were the first people in a long time to ask her what her dreams were. I got very emotional,” Jones-Jackson says. “My parents did that for me. To think that someone has never had that was very upsetting.”

English and secondary education major Garrett Solomon ’18 was equally affected when he saw it click for the Olivet students that the arts was something they could participate in. “I’ve always accepted art as part of my life. It’s the way I cope with things, but they were blown away,” Solomon says. “It was cool to see their eyes light up at the idea of postsecondary education, too.”

The arts at Olivet Boys & Girls Club is housed at the PAL Center for the Arts, which receives grants and gifts from local organizations such as the Reading Musical Foundation, Yocum Institute for Arts Education, Berks Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts. However, according to center director Richard Bradbury, that funding doesn’t fully cover the 4,000 Reading youth that Olivet serves annually. “ASTEP is assisting to fill in that gap,” Bradbury says.

Over the summer, the partnership grew. Albright students ran summer camp workshops at Olivet that combined storytelling, art and music, and provided individual lessons in the visual and performing arts. “We didn’t just go in as art, music and theatre teachers,” says Jenofsky. “We went in as mentors to create a real relationship.”

This fall, the partnership took yet another step when six Olivet youth came to Albright to perform.

The First “First Friday”

With a smile as bright as his orange Olivet Boys’ and Girls’ Club T-shirt, Northwest Middle School seventh-grader Aaron Oliver walked onto the stage in Roop Hall like he owned it. “Give me your shoes,” he said to castmate Angel Acosta, a senior at Reading High School, in “The Coat Skit,” a piece about figuring out how to fit in. Feeling defeated and sad after relinquishing his new shoes, Acosta’s character turned to the “coat,” a symbol of drugs, alcohol and bad choices.

Oliver and Acosta are members of Berks Pride, an Olivet group that spreads the message to peers about living drug-, alcohol- and violence-free. Six members of the group performed during ASTEP’s “First Friday” performance in October.

“Growing up is not easy in today’s society,” says Jenofsky, who viewed the show via Facetime from London, where she is studying abroad. “Many times kids will go down the wrong path because they think getting into drugs and alcohol is what is cool. It’s important for kids to hear from their peers that there are other ways to fit in.”

Qwyn Cephus, a homeschooled eighth grader from Reading, says she’s always loved acting, but getting to do it and spread an important message makes her feel like she’s doing something great. “When you’re in an assembly and being talked to by adults it feels like you’re being lectured,” she says. “What we do is show kids that you can succeed without drugs, alcohol and fighting.”

ASTEP’s “First Friday” performance, an opportunity to spread awareness about the organization, to allow artists to share their talents and to raise money for the Olivet Boys’ and Girls’ Club, included improv, musical performances, poetry and spoken word.

Standing alone with his guitar on the Roop Hall stage, Joey Olkusz ’18 performed his original song “Maybe Next Year,” inspired by a mix of nostalgia and hope for the future.

“When it comes to music, I love the expressiveness that each artist can put forward while playing a song or performing. It’s amazing how four chords can sound so different depending on who is interpreting those chords and what mood they are in,” says the accounting and mathematics major.

Last spring, Olkusz performed for the boys and girls at Olivet. “I was happy to share music with them, hopefully planting a seed that will one day inspire them to become musicians.”

After Olkusz’s performance, Lentz says he could see in each of the children’s faces how in awe they were. “The kids who were interested in knowing how to play were like pied pipers,” Lentz says.

But, he notes, the experience is equally as gratifying for the college students. “At this period in their lives they are self-focused and doing a lot of introspection. This provides an opportunity to give for nothing in return. They’re not doing it for credit, there’s no check list. They’re doing it because they have an innate need to share their art.”

For Oliver, who lit up the Albright stage, “Olivet has been the perfect place to find and live my dreams,” he says, “and ASTEP has been a big part of that.” When Jenofsky returns in the spring, she and her board members plan to reach out to the other Berks County colleges and universities to encourage them to begin their own ASTEP chapters and to adopt an Olivet Boys’ and Girls’ Club in their vicinity.

Bradbury could not be more grateful for the talents and spirit of Albright’s ASTEP members. “Only good will result from such goodwill and fellowship,” he says.

For more about ASTEP, visit http://astep78.wix.com/astepatalbright

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