Zumix program brings Boston students to Vermont School for Girls

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BENNINGTON — For students at the Vermont School for Girls, music can prove an invaluable asset in handling complex trauma. Creating original music alongside peers from East Boston, however, can amplify that impact.

For over two decades East Boston's Zumix program, facilitated by the Vermont Arts Exchange (VAE), has brought students from Boston's metropolitan area to perform in downtown Bennington and collaborate with local students.

"Zumix started in 1991 with the simple idea of empowering youth through music," said Youth Development and Performance Manager Corey DePina, who also participated in Zumix as a teenager. "It's been fabulous for us to be able to perform, but also to be able to do what we do back in Boston, which is giving kids the opportunity to feel empowered with a microphone in their hands and share rhymes, and songs, and stories."

"What's great is that VAE is not actually teaching," said Matthew Perry, the executive director of the VAE, which connected with Zumix over two decades ago via the New England Foundation for the Arts. "It's great to be a catalyst for using the arts in community engagement, but not necessarily delivering it ourselves."

Zumix's Songwriting and Performance programs are designed to help youth address the complex challenges of urban life in a positive way, but the format has also proven popular at the Vermont School for Girls, where many students are recovering from complex childhood trauma.

"We really try to give the girls as many opportunities to build their self confidence back up, and their belief in themselves and in this world," said Savannah Shiever, math teacher and choral instructor at the school. "It doesn't always have to be a scary place, even though that might be what they've experienced up to this point."

This year, 12 performers ranging in age from 13 to 18 traveled to Bennington for a public performance on the front porch of the Town Office on Monday. The next day, they became immersed in peer-to-peer workshops and performances at the Vermont School for Girls.

"Believe it or not, I think there's a universal consciousness with young people and the stuff they go through, so music can act as a unifier," said DePina. "For the girls group, I think it's really cool for them to see other people doing something that's really intimidating, but with confidence and with poise, and being able to see themselves in my kids."

"Our girls come from backgrounds with complex trauma, so often they've learned behaviors that are not the best moving forward to have more of a successful lifestyle. It doesn't mean they're bad kids, it's just how the trauma shows up," said Shiever. "This pulls them out of their regular routine, and all of the sudden these girls are coming together and working on something productively and collaboratively."

For the students, that peer-to-peer interaction can prove inspiring.

"The collaboration is very unique because we have people who have been trained in music theory, and all of the nuts and bolts that come with creating a song, and also people that have an idea," said 15-year-old Gabi Barroso, a participant in Zumix's Songwriting and Performance program. "All it takes is that first step, that access to instruments or songwriting or theory or chords, that really lets them fly."

"Just being able to see everybody dance if they want to and sing along was really great," said Kloey, a student at the Vermont School for Girls. "Being here, there's not a lot of kids in your own age group to work with. Just being able to work with Zumix means a lot, and it helps."

The empowerment and unity that music fosters can prove hugely beneficial for students from both groups, who perform their own original works following a morning full of creative workshops.

"The peer to peer is really important, because they're so used to having teachers that are older than them," said Perry. "Some of these kids are younger than the girls, and they're singing, and it really allows them to see that they can do it too."

"Unfortunately, my daughter's a product of bullying since she was in 5th grade. Her only outlet has been music, so we embraced that and found Zumix in East Boston where we live," said Jennifer Lopez, who traveled to Vermont with her daughter, Laura Lopez-Finet. "She goes for three or four classes at a time, after school she's there, she teaches there, she works there; Zumix saved her life."

Throughout workshops and collaboration, the staff from both the school and Zumix revel in the positive relationships formed by students.

"We have one student who very often shows up in a way that keeps other girls away from her, and the first thing that she said when she came in was "nope, I'm not doing this,'" said Shiever. "All of the girls asked her to please join them, that they really wanted to hear her sing, and she just started beaming."

"One girl wrote a song about the last election, and how it was kind of a womanizing experience," said DePina. "That was really cool for other young ladies to hear that story about standing up, and not thinking that it's okay for a person that's in charge to be able to say those things about women. Those are the type of things that I think are really important when it comes to the exchange."

Though Zumix only comes to Vermont once a year, the collaboration can impact students well beyond a singular visit, according to organizers.

"There's something special about music," said DePina. "It can change your life."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.


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