Living the Mission

Community of Notes

With a singular vision-bringing music education to underserved children in her hometown-one Class of 1992 alumna is fulfilling a mission born on the Hill.

 

By Katherine Long

When Jessie Keating '92 talks about her kids, it's not just her face that lights up-it's her entire being.

"Seeing children with instruments in their hands and joy on their faces is just an amazing thing," Keating says, eyes wide and grinning from ear to ear. "The pride, the passion ... It's incredible."

Keating dotes on her two daughters, Maggie, 8, and Lila, 6, but in this case, the kids she's talking about are the students of Imagine Syracuse (imaginesyracuse.com), the nonprofit she founded to give children in her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., access to affordable music education.

Though the former English major is not a musician herself, she believes music is an integral, essential part of everyday education. "So many studies point to the impact music has on IQ, math and reading scores, social and emotional stability, a child's progress and success. But with tight budgets, music programs are being eliminated from many schools," Keating says, adding, "Music should be available and accessible to all kids, no matter how much money they have. It's a social justice thing for me."

Imagine Syracuse provided weekly reduced-cost music lessons in three suburban public elementary schools. Those lessons, in turn, helped to fund the Young Musicians Project at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP), a Catholic elementary school in the heart of the city's north side. Modeled after Venezuela's famed El Sistema program, the Project provides students with two hours of free, small-group music instruction every day after school. Local professional musicians and trained music instructors teach the children to play brass, woodwinds and strings; the afternoons also include choir, Brazilian and African drumming and dance.

"The Young Musicians Project takes Imagine Syracuse's mission one step further, using musical training to strengthen urban education and give underserved children a vehicle for improving their lives and their communities," says Keating, shown below with student artists and far right getting her hands dirty.

Working with underserved youth and communities is Keating's passion, one she can trace back to her days at Holy Cross. "I found my niche at Holy Cross in the world of social service," Keating says. "The Jesuit tradition emphasizes service and social justice, and there were so many opportunities for students to get out and do good in the community. That's where I learned to volunteer and started realizing what I wanted to do with my life." (She notes that two other Crusaders, her husband Dan Keating '93 and attorney Buster Melvin '93, serve on the Imagine Syracuse board.) As an undergraduate, Keating was an active volunteer and campus organizer for the Mustard Seed, the Catholic Worker soup kitchen co-founded by Frank Kartheiser '72 in Worcester. (Holy Cross students continue the tradition of volunteering there through Student Programs for Urban Development, SPUD.)

Keating became very close with the families served by the Mustard Seed, she says, and has fond memories of bringing some of the kids back to campus for dinner at the Pizza Cellar (now Crossroads).

After graduation, she continued her commitment to social justice, spending a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working in a shelter for homeless and at-risk youth in San Francisco.

Following stints as a journalist in California and as a copywriter and a sous chef in New York City, Keating and her husband moved back to Syracuse. In 2007, while working as a youth minister at a local church, she took a group of high school students to the Dominican Republic to volunteer at an arts camp for orphans.

"The experience was so deeply moving. When we got home, the students and I wanted to keep working with kids in impoverished communities," Keating recalls. Calling themselves "Imagine Syracuse," they found local volunteer opportunities. "We started working on [Syracuse's] Near West Side neighborhood, the ninth poorest census tract in the country, and we began to see a real unequal playing field in terms of arts and enrichment for children."

Keating knocked on doors around town, asking friends and contacts to donate six weeks of after-school programming. They were able to provide a year's worth of classes, including karate, ballet and art. But, says Keating, the music classes had the greatest impact.

"We decided to take the resources that we were spreading out across music, art, dance, visual and performing arts and just focus 100 percent on music," she explains. Imagine Syracuse received its 501c3 nonprofit status in 2010 and, after connecting with the El Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory, partnered with CAP to institute the Young Musicians Project in 2011.

CAP's student body represents an incredible diversity of cultural, social and economic backgrounds. About 80 percent of the students are members of refugee families who have recently come from countries such as Sudan and Vietnam. More than a dozen languages are spoken. The majority of students receive tuition assistance. Keating sees music as a natural way to help these students find their way in their new homeland.

"Refugee families are the reason Syracuse is growing. They are the future of this city. Music can help them overcome the challenges of speaking a different language or coming from another culture and give them a means of finding common ground with their classmates and neighbors," Keating says. "By investing in these kids, we can do some really important work for them and for Syracuse."

In its first year, the Project comprised 68 first-through-sixth graders. CAP's former director of development, Patricia Schmidt, estimates it was the first formal music instruction for about 90 percent of the students, but already a number of very talented, joyful young musicians have emerged. The students have also learned the importance of personal accountability, discipline and teamwork-important lessons they can take outside of the classroom.

"An orchestra is a metaphor for the community. If you do your best on your violin, then that makes the entire orchestra sound better. If you do your best in your community, then that makes the whole community better," Keating explains.

Along with the hiring of new leadership and teachers, the Project has contributed to improved academic performance: The students' scores on state English and math tests showed significant gains from 2011 to 2012.

"It's hugely rewarding to see, scientifically, that this program is helping children excel," Keating says.

With a successful year behind them, Keating and CAP are committed to bringing the program back for the 2012-13 school year. Funding the Project, however, has been an ongoing challenge. When hoped-for funding didn't come through last year, the teachers took a voluntary 50 percent pay cut. This year, Keating shares, they have had to offer fewer days of service.

"In this economy, raising money is a challenge. And in a mid-size city like Syracuse, the same people get their shoulders tapped by every worthy cause, and there are many," Keating says.

But she's not giving up. Keating is pursuing grants and exploring ways to tweak the program in order to make sure the Project continues. Generous donors-including some former Holy Cross classmates and their families-have helped sustain Imagine Syracuse this long, and she knows there is "someone out there who believes in and loves these kids and this program as much as I do."

"Holy Cross taught me to give a life of service and that has become the cornerstone of my life," Keating says. "Going to Holy Cross was such an opportunity for me to learn new things and meet new people and try to make a positive impact in the community. Those are the kinds of doors I want Imagine Syracuse to open for kids."   ■

Katherine Long is the editor of The Catholic Sun, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y.