All over the region, arts centers, performing groups and revered institutions alike host kids and teens for summer camps that help fuel creativity and learning. One such camp expanded in scope this year. Arts Enterprise, a summer camp for teens with special needs, has taken a leap into the arts community through collaborations with arts and cultural organizations all around the region. Arts Enterprise is a program of Melodic Connections, an organization that uses the arts, and especially music, to help people with special needs build relationships.
Arts Enterprise began eight years ago as "Art of Being Social." It was started in response to parents who saw their children becoming increasingly isolated over the summer months. At those times, their children's peers had multiple opportunities to get together with friends when classes weren't in session. Research from the American Camp Association shows that one of the primary benefits of summer camp is a boost in relationship-building skills. Kids who attend camps during the summer are more likely to find success in the next chapter of their lives, especially kids with special needs. So it became a key part of the mission of Melodic Connections to "bring groups together through music to form lasting relationships."
This year, instead of confining camp to a community center or church basement, Melodic Connections decided to try something new. Instead of introducing the arts to the campers little by little, they're taking the campers to the arts community. In two sessions, each a week long, about a dozen teens explore the arts community in Greater Cincinnati. They visited Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, where they learned group theater exercises meant to hone social skills. They explored Music Hall with musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, meeting Pops conductor John Morris Russell in the process. They visited Cincinnati Ballet, where they took in a Summer Intensive rehearsal.
After seeing the incredible dancers, each student wrote a reflection on what they saw. That's when another new idea was born. One of the campers is a teen named Rithik who has quite a way with words. His writing talent came to light in his response to the Ballet rehearsal. As he shared his story, other campers started talking about how they could collaborate and contribute to make his ideas even bigger.
One student decided he could direct the story. Two campers started choreographing ballet moves to his words. Campers in the music discipline had been recording city sounds in Washington Park and turning them into custom song mixes, so they thought that could be a soundtrack. A group went to the library's Maker Space to design a logo and make buttons. Eventually, the project incorporated elements of each camper's authentic creative voice, as well as multiple influences from their community arts experiences. On Thursday morning of camp, an impromptu performance of all the elements was staged, which came to be called "Fantastic Confusion."
Aside from producing touching moments and experiences like these, Arts Enterprise appears to be working as intended. Campers have the opportunity to experience and create together. Surveys indicate that 96% of campers maintained or increased their social skills in nine targeted areas, including positive peer interaction, conversational turn-taking and joint or shared attention.
The arts have an incredible ability to build connections between people. For those who are at risk of falling behind in social skills, experiences like the Arts Enterprise camp are extraordinarily valuable. Melodic Connections plans to continue offering these experiences, along with their partner organizations. They also hope to expand geographically. While they currently operate camp in Oakley and Downtown/Over-the-Rhine, they hope to spread out to wherever the arts can be found. "This camp is about helping teens build the connections they will need to be successful beyond high school," says Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh, executive director of Melodic Connections, "an important outcome made possible through the arts."