Article from City of Pittsfield website. This story is part of a series profiling the community organizations that received ARPA funds from the City of Pittsfield, authored by Roger Matus.
“The children truly suffered from the COVID pandemic,” said Madeline Cantarella Culpo, founder, artistic director, and teacher for the Berkshire Civic Ballet, also known as the Albany-Berkshire Ballet, in Pittsfield. “Students were changed by it. Social skills, motivation, and the ability to work with others for a common goal were lost.
A fixture in Pittsfield since 1955, more than 10,000 area students have attended the Cantarella School of Dance, an extension of the Berkshire Civic Ballet. Miss Madeline, as she is known to her students, saw the impact of political and social change on children for more than 65 years. She said nothing she had experienced compared to the effects of the COVID pandemic.
“All the students could do during COVID was sit at home, click on a computer, and listen to a teacher. They forgot how to interact with their peers outside of the friends they talked to on their phone,” explained Miss Madeline.
“It became a mental health issue,” Destiny Culpo (Miss Destiny), administrative director and dance instructor, added. “A lot of youth shut down mentally and physically during COVID. They didn’t want to leave home and go back to school. They didn’t want to get out and engage. This was especially true for children in the Morningside, Westside, and Downtown neighborhoods where access to programs can be more difficult.”
The dance instructors dealt with the challenges of the pandemic firsthand when the school continued to teach during the pandemic via Zoom.
“And believe me, that wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for the teachers, and it wasn’t easy for the children. Some of them were in their bedroom. And like all children, you jump on the bed when you’re supposed to be doing the pliés, or the dog comes in,” said Miss Madeline. “It is hard for students to focus when all this is happening.”
As schools reopened and children could meet again in person, the social and motivational problems didn’t disappear. Students needed to relearn these skills. The dance instructors and staff at the Berkshire Civic Ballet (Albany-Berkshire Ballet) looked for ways to help students to engage again.
That was when Debra Goddeau, the Ballet’s partnership director, read in the newspaper that the City of Pittsfield was developing grants to non-profit organizations using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. These grants were intended for community groups to help Pittsfield residents recover from the pandemic and its aftereffects. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to help.
“Going back out into the world was tough for kids. Now, they have to communicate. They have to cooperate with others,” said Debra. “We can help.”
The purpose of the ARPA funding request was to offer full scholarships to students between the ages of 3 and 18 living in the Morningside, Westside, and Downtown neighborhoods. The scholarships would cover tuition, supplies, dancewear, dance shoes, and recital costumes. Students would have access to everything they needed to dance.
“If they can come here and meet friends and move their body in a positive direction, they would mentally return to school and work with others. Dance also provides positive reinforcement, which the children need right now,” said Debra.
The city awarded a grant of $51,920 in ARPA funding to provide scholarships for up to 37 income-eligible students each year for two years. The available dance programs included ballet, pointe, jazz, tap, modern, lyrical, hip-hop, musical theater, and pre-ballet.
“After the ARPA award, we began an outreach program to let families know that scholarships were available. Some families just don’t have many resources. They don’t even think of sending their kids to a dance program because they didn’t know it was possible,” said Debra.
Debra went into the neighborhoods, put up signs, met with parents, and encouraged sign-ups.
“I did my own outreach,” she said.
She described going to the Berkshire Dream Center on Tyler Street, which ran a program providing backpacks filled with supplies to kids going back to school. She contacted the Center and got permission to talk with parents during backpack pickup times.
“I was there myself, and I had my younger granddaughter come and help give out flyers. I talked to the parents, and I had an overwhelming response. People said, ‘My child wants to dance. My child’s bored and always tired. They’re so excited to dance,” Debra said. “And it wasn’t just the little ones. It was the older youth, too. I would say 16 was probably the oldest. We had all ages.”
Then word of mouth took over.
“People would contact us and say, ‘Hey, my sister-in-law got a brochure, or I had a flyer. Can we sign up?” Debra added.
In total, 32 scholarship students enrolled in classes alongside the school’s other 100 students.
“In the beginning, it was challenging for all our students to return to a classroom setting. They had to relearn how to engage as a group.” Miss Destiny said. “As time went on, attendance, engagement and all-around discipline improved. It was the big things and the little things that got better. I’m so proud of them.”
“That’s what dance teaches you – discipline. To finish what you start,” said Miss Madeline. “Whether you stay in dance, go into sports, or do other things in life, learning to work with others and finish what you started is so important.”
After working hard all year, the end-of-year recital was a significant accomplishment for many students.
“For some students, it was their first time performing. It’s a big achievement,” said Miss Destiny. “The parents thanked me at the end. They loved the recital. It’s exciting to watch your child on stage.”
The school wanted to ensure that scholarship students had the same opportunities as all the other students. For example, recital costumes are often a considerable expense for a family. But the ARPA scholarships covered that. Members of each ARPA scholarship recipient family were invited to attend at no cost.
“After the recital, one child wanted to know, what do I do with this costume? And she was told, ‘It’s yours.’ Isn’t that wonderful? You should have seen her glow,” said Miss Madeline.
“You did a phenomenal job with her. She now wants to continue dancing. Thank you so very much,” said Diane Lotero, a parent.
The school hopes that word-of-mouth will continue, and more children will become interested. Parents will tell other parents about what their children did. The child will share their proud moments.
“The funds from ARPA enabled us to prove just how valuable this dance program is to the community. I hope to use our success to reach out to other organizations for ongoing funding. We want to keep this program going because it means so much to the kids,” said Debra.