By Susan Goracke
PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble had been rehearsing the upbeat pop tune “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic for several minutes. When it was time for her solo, Priscilla Ah Yek burst in with her clear high soprano voice. It was Priscilla’s second solo in the nine months she has been with PHAME, a Portland nonprofit organization offering arts education as well as performance and socializing opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities.
On this Tuesday afternoon in October, the ensemble — PHAME’s elite performance-based class requiring an audition — was rehearsing a medley of songs to perform at the Sparkle Gala, PHAME’s annual fundraiser set in early November. After dissecting several sections of the piece with each of the three soloists, Music Director Matthew Gailey asked the group to go through the song again. This time Priscilla nailed her part and beamed.
It was clear from her focused attention on Gailey’s instructions that 18-year-old Priscilla takes music seriously. With her natural ability and enthusiasm for singing, music has been a major interest, as well as the fun factor, in Priscilla’s life since she began entertaining her family by singing nursery rhymes as a youngster. A few years later, she could sing all the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” from the “Sound of Music.” From eighth grade until she left high school last year, Priscilla sang in school choirs, a highlight of her days in the public school system.
Several years ago, Priscilla’s mother, Kristen Ah Yek, saw a video of a PHAME performance and immediately knew the program was perfect for Priscilla. But Ah Yek had to wait to sign up her daughter until January 2014, when Priscilla was old enough. Since then, Priscilla has thrived in the program. She auditioned for and was accepted into PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble, plus she takes an iPad-based class called Music in Motion.
“I like to sing,” Priscilla says hesitantly, overcoming her shyness in front of a stranger. “I’ve found out with PHAME, I like Rock ‘N Roll. It’s my favorite.” Priscilla, who lives at home in Vancouver, Wash., with her parents and four siblings, also enjoys singing with her father, Roy Ah Yek. He performed in a Polynesian musical revue in his native Samoa before moving to the United States.
“These classes have given Priscilla her confidence,” her mom says. “Working with other students with disabilities has encouraged her to be open. She makes me so proud.”
30 years of serving the Portland community
Founded in 1984 as PHAME, an acronym for Portland Honored Artists and Musical Entertainers, the organization is celebrating its 30th year. Over three decades, as program offerings have expanded, PHAME has stayed true to its mission: to inspire Portland-area adults with developmental disabilities to lead full, creative lives through arts education and performance.
In addition to tackling fully staged Broadway musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” “Into the Woods,” “Les Miserables” and “Grease,” PHAME students have brought their high-energy vocal and instrumental performances to schools and community centers throughout Northwest Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, and to Brussels, Belgium. Two of the current 90 students have been with PHAME since its founding, and many others have been with the organization for five, 10 and 20 years.
“We’ve been deepening and broadening our curriculum, and our five-year goal is to have 160 students,” says Executive Director Stephen Beaudoin, who has been with PHAME since 2010. “But to do that, we’ll have to move to a larger space. We’ve had 17 locations in 30 years, mostly church basements.”
For the past four years, PHAME has called Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in inner Northeast Portland home. Beaudoin says the group is looking for a permanent home and plans to raise money toward that goal in the future.
Portland-based Vibrant Village Foundation has awarded PHAME three grants totaling $15,000 over the past three years.
“PHAME is a true gem in our community,” says Vibrant Village Program Manager Laura Koch. “The staff at PHAME are incredible at providing top-notch instruction and performing arts opportunities for an under-served and under-appreciated population, and for bringing together the broader community to support these talents.”
“We’ve been so grateful for Vibrant Village’s support,” Beaudoin adds. “They and our other donors allow our academy to operate and to offer our students a tuition well below what other programs charge.” While students are charged $80-225 per class for a 13-week term, students who can’t afford the entire tuition are given a discount. “Last year we granted about $17,000 in tuition assistance.”
PHAME students rise to teachers’ expectations
Back at the hour-and-a-half-long Chamber Ensemble class, Gailey patiently went over musical phrasing, harmonies and solos with students. His expectations were high, and students responded with concentration.
“I find pop and rock [songs] work for this group really well, but I do modify some of the more difficult material when needed,” explains Gailey, who has been with PHAME for three years. During that time he has introduced students to a variety of difficult music, from Broadway tunes to classical selections and complicated art songs.
“I want to challenge them, to not make this class just a social time,” he adds. “I’ve had feedback from students who say ‘Thank you for stretching us.’ That’s part of what PHAME offers: mutual respect. I’ve never had a group that was so gratifying to be in front of [directing].”
Gailey notes that a few students read music, but most learn it by ear by practicing with recordings he gives them to take home.
“Our students have a range of innate artistic ability and we want to prepare some of them to have a shot at working with Portland theaters, music groups and artists,” he says. “Our students have performed with groups like Pink Martini, Storm Large, Laura Gibson and The Portland Cello Project. We'd like to help facilitate those types of collaborations in the future. I'd also eventually like to see a collaborative community choir.”
Gailey has an impressive background in both music education and performance, and most PHAME instructors are working professionals in their chosen field, whether it is art, music, dance or theater. But they also have a passion for sharing their knowledge with our students, says PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart, who has been with PHAME since 2009.
“The program has evolved so much since I started here,” Dart adds. “We were offering about 10 classes then, and now we’re offering 22.” The current curriculum includes classes such as Playwriting, Musical Theater, Costume Design, Acting, Dance, Dance Fitness, Yoga, Music in Motion, Rhythm and Drumming, Songwriting, Choir, Chamber Ensemble, and a class called From Bach to Tupac: Mind Blowing Sounds! There is even a newspaper publication class.
“I think we have a good balance of the rigor and the fun,” says Dart, who works with teachers to design the classes. “Our expectations and standards are really high.”
Beaudoin adds, “We want to create the kind of life our students want to have, whatever their goals or dreams may be. For some, it’s to build a social network, and for others, it’s to pursue their goals in a professional setting. We want to help them go where they want to go.”
Chamber Ensemble shines at Sparkle Gala
A couple of days following PHAME’s 2014 Sparkle Gala, held Nov. 2 at the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland, Beaudoin was still exhilarated. With just over 360 in attendance, the event had raised about $208,000 for next year’s operating expenses.
“It was a fantastic success, an unforgettable night,” he reports. “The students just absolutely shined, and the event went beautifully.” In attendance were a cross-section of the broader PHAME community, including board members and parents of students, business leaders and elected officials.
“We used the $5,000 Vibrant Village grant to inspire other large donations, and we got five gifts at that level, Beaudoin adds. “It was a great night at the gala, but we still have a lot more to raise. I was proud of the students. They stepped up their game and gave a great performance, and the crowd showed their appreciation.”
For Priscilla Ah Yek and her mother, the night was equally exciting.
“I was a little bit nervous when I got to the mic,” Priscilla admits, thinking back to her “Counting Stars” solo.
“The response was just amazing,” adds her mom, who attended the gala with her husband. “They gave her a standing ovation. The woman next to me had tears in her eyes. I was proud of Priscilla, and I was proud of all the students. They worked so hard at rehearsals. PHAME is such an excellent program.”
For more information about PHAME and its upcoming PHAME @ 30 Holiday Finale on Dec. 13, go to www.phamepdx.org.
Ibu Luseria leads by example. Despite her advanced years, she is out there and digging with all other community members. The 2010 tsunami took their houses and livelihoods, their children, family and friends. The survivors have moved to higher ground, into the forest. Slowly they are trying to rebuild their lives again.
"Water is so important for our lives and health,” says Ibu Luseria. ”Since the tsunami we have been using rainwater for drinking and the runoff from the road for washing dishes and ourselves. Of course I want to contribute with the rest of the community to get clean water into Eruparaboat. Together with Surfaid, it is possible!"
The community of Eruparaboat hamlet (88 households and 287people) is among 13 communities that were relocated to a new area in the forest on a hill, in the aftermath of the 2010 tsunami. Since their relocation they have been eagerly waiting for the government to build new infrastructures, such as access roads and their permanent houses. This has only started in January 2014, much later than expected.
In addition to the new government homes, Vibrant Village Foundation has invested $31,345 to support the construction of a solar-powered clean-water distribution system for the village. A water committee, which was selected by the community, will play an important role to ensure the sustainability of the water system as its main function is to oversee day-to-day operations, initiate policies for all water users and manage the whole system. The committee will also keep promoting health and sanitation education for the community.
Photos by Nazaruddin, water and sanitation engineer SurfAid.
Mrs. Surtika, a 35 year-old community member from Eruparaboat explains, “Since we had to move from our village of origin, we have suffered from lack of food, no appropriate homes to live in and most the vital, we have lack of potable water. This lack of drinking water affects our children and us. That is why, we are pleased upon hearing the clean water project will be established in our hamlet. During the community meeting, we have discussed on contribution on labor and will work together to succeed the water project construction. My hope that the completion of this project will help a lot for community.”
Each school day, three to five mothers bring their own pots, pans and other cooking utensils to Keur Soce Primary School in central Senegal to help prepare a nutritious breakfast for the 360 students.
“It has completely changed the children. They have gained weight and are healthy,” says Aissatou Ndao, one of about 35 mothers who regularly show up to prepare a hot cereal made from ground beans, corn, rice, millet and peanuts — all grown locally. “Before, students sometimes came to school and did not talk much. But now, they participate more actively in class.”
While soils are fertile in this region of West Africa and most of Keur Soce’s 3,500 people rely on agriculture to survive, the area also is vulnerable to the harsh extremes of the wet and dry seasons. Poverty is high among families, and sometimes men must leave the area in search of work while their families stay home.
“Before the program, I had problems affording breakfast,” says 10-year-old Ibrahima Diagne. “But now, I don’t have them anymore.” Thanks to the breakfast program, Ibrahima says he attends school more regularly, which he likes. “School helps me to work and to succeed to help my parents.”
The Andando Foundation, an Oregon-based nonprofit agency that works mostly in Senegal to alleviate poverty through micro-development, started the Keur Soce Primary School’s nutrition program in 2013 with the help of a $75,000 one-year grant from Vibrant Village.
"We are pleased to help fund Keur Soce’s Primary School’s breakfast program,” says Georgina Bukenya Fields, Vibrant Village Foundation's International Programs director. Georgina points out how leading researchers on early childhood nutrition programs have found that schools can offer an enormous opportunity for promotion of health and nutrition for children.
Ndao adds that before Andando created the breakfast program, her own children occasionally would suffer from stomachaches and headaches. “Now they have no problems.”
Teacher Magatte Thiaw Mbaye agrees: “Previously, the students would be hungry by a certain time and unable to follow the lesson. Today, they are happy; they want to learn. They no longer fall asleep in class.”
Bineta Gueye, another teacher whose own daughter attends the school, considers the breakfast program a success on several levels. “It helps families save money. They used to have to send their students to school with 100 West African CFA Francs (about 20 cents) for breakfast.” She adds, “It has brought together the women of the village. And the students enjoy the breakfast a lot.”
After one year of operating Andando’s nutrition program and a number of infrastructure improvements, the school has seen a dramatic increase in test results from students taking the state-run elementary completion test. Over the past five years, the pass rate has averaged 45 percent, but in 2014, more than 65 percent of students passed the exam.
“The parents and school administration were very happy with the results, and we see this as a culmination of our efforts in providing better facilities, increased nutrition, more community involvement and improved attendance,” says Lewis Kiker, Andando’s executive director. “While there is still a long way to go, this is a great start and proof that things can change when attention and effort is put forth.”
Through the partnership between Andando and Keur Soce Primary School, students now receive breakfast or lunch five days a week. Lunches are prepared with fresh vegetables from the newly established school garden and rice from the World Food Program.
In addition to the breakfast program, Vibrant Village Foundation’s grant also funded the school garden, which supplies food for the nutrition program, and paid for several much-needed repairs to the school. Young men attending nearby Legacy International Vocational School rebuilt the desks, and many parents volunteered their time to help repair and paint the school.
“Vibrant Village Foundation is thrilled that Andando’s work in Keur Soce has generated exciting results and galvanized the community to lead efforts to improve the well-being of the children of Keur Soce,” Vibrant Village’s Fields says.
Andando’s Kiker adds, “The last year was a time of growth for Andando, and Vibrant Village Foundation was a huge part of that. We were able to grow the scope and reach of our programs and take steps to ensure their success and sustainability. Vibrant Village Foundation helped us guide these programs and reach a growing number of people in Keur Soce across many sectors as we walk together with the people of Senegal.”