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Arts Beat: Learning life lessons through the performing arts at ARIEL Theatrical

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Courtesy of Kylee Sullivan | ARIEL Theatrical
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ARIEL Theatrical held virtual programs during the beginning of 2021.

When you look at a performing arts program, there are some things you can expect to learn such as singing, dancing or acting – but at ARIEL Theatrical, kids learn so much more.

ARIEL is an acronym for five principles: Accountability, Respect, Integrity, Excellence and Leadership.

Heather Kirk, the Executive Director at ARIEL, said these principles are a cornerstone of the programs.

“We’re not like a star making factory, we’re not here to discover the next Broadway talent. Although it could happen, I mean you never know. But, we’re here to have these kids to learn things that will transcend the stage and take them into their lives as the best they can be,” Kirk said.

It’s the Salinas nonprofit’s focus on helping develop the kids that drew the Summer Camp Director, Lauren Wilkins, to the organization.

“The employees here are dedicated to helping these kids be better people. And it's clear from the very start that it’s not just about acting and having fun after school, but trying to help these kids be the best people they can be,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said she starts every day with an “ARIEL moment” where she teaches the kids about life lessons.

“One of our teengaers just a couple weeks ago, we asked her what she remembered and what she appreciated from her time here when she was younger. And she said ‘all of the quotes about principles’ because she still remembers them and she uses them to this day, so there are little things that make and impact and stick with them as they continue through their programs,” Wilkins said.

ARIEL Theatrical transitioned to online classes when the pandemic hit, but they’ve been able to be back in person for summer camp programs the past couple of months.

Wilkins said kids who started at ARIEL during the pandemic are finally able to be in the theater.

“Many of our kids who are in online programs, the first time they arrive for an in-person program go, ‘We’re here, this is great, we’re in person!’” Wilkins said.

Online classes were a necessity, but Wilkins said she’s excited to be back in person.

“It’s wonderful to be in person, we love having them here,” Wilkins said. “It was such a quiet building without them and you don’t want a quiet building for a theater.”

One of the main principles at ARIEL is leadership and Kirk said seeing kids grow into teens and lead the next group of kids is another part of what makes ARIEL so special.

“I’ve seen kids that have started out, you know, young kids 9-10 years old, brand new in the program, a little shy. And now, they’re here as our teen youth leaders that are modeling the behaviors, they’re in charge, running little break off sections of the classes,” Kirk said. “They are the leaders, so I’ve gotten to see them start out, first day, nervous, hugging mom and day like ‘okay, bye’ and now they’re here as the future leaders of ARIEL, of their communities, of their, you know, going off to college and career – they’re using ARIEL kind of as a springboard for their lives.”

Kirk said kids do better academically when they’re part of arts programs including theater, music and dance.

“I write grants everyday that basically want to know ‘Why do you want funding? What makes what you do important?’ I just quoted Michelle Obama in a grant – her talking about that the arts aren’t kind of and after like ‘Oh let's throw in some arts’ the arts are an important part of the formula that help kids prepare for life and become successful academically. So, it's not just an afterthought,” Kirk said.

ARIEL’s summer program wrapped up last week, but they are going to continue the 2021 season with a beginning program called ‘Yee-haw’ for ages 5-11 and will be able to perform SchoolHouse Rock Live! Part 2, that was tabled at the start of the pandemic.

Kirk said the 2022 season will look much more like a typical season for ARIEL Theatrical with their full variety of programs including homeschool programs and offsite programs at elementary schools.

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