Original article by Gia Mazur was published in the Scranton Times. View the original article here.

The arts have come alive again.

Forced to cancel last year because of COVID-19, Arts Alive returns this summer. Although organizers scaled it back, the program still gives Northeast Pennsylvania students a place to express themselves through the visual and performing arts — just as it has for nearly three decades.

Planning for the summer usually begins in the fall, said Arts Alive director Catherine Richmond-Cullen, Ed.D., and because regulations were more strict in October, Arts Alive’s smaller class sizes and protocols reflect that. While Richmond-Cullen hopes the program can accept more students next year, it currently has 32 students from kindergarten through grade 12 learning under one roof at Ballet Theatre of Scranton, 310 Penn Ave. Richmond-Cullen, who also directs Arts in Education Northeast PA at Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit, compared Arts Alive to a “little red schoolhouse.”

“It’s nice to have everyone all together, because this way, the visual arts students can hear and see what the performing arts kids are up to, and the performers get to see the visual artists at work,” she said.

The culmination of both programs begins with an open studio at Ballet Theatre on Tuesday, July 20, from 11:15 a.m. to noon, when parents and friends can view the visual arts students’ work. On Thursday, July 22, the performing arts students will present their final show at 6 p.m. under a tent at Glenmaura National Golf Club, 100 Glenmaura National Blvd., Moosic. Tickets for that show cost $20 and include admission to both the performance and the picnic that follows.

While pieces of the final performance come about organically during the sessions, this year’s show will encompass a joyful outlook coming out of the pandemic, said Joanne Arduino, Ballet Theatre’s artistic director and the producer of the final performance. Songs include “Welcome Back” (the theme song from ’70s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter’’), “Mamma Mia,” “I Will Survive,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and more.

“It’s all a celebration of life and coming back together,” Arduino said.

During a recent day at the dance studio, students sang, danced and created, happy to be back at Arts Alive. Rebecca Oakes, 11, is in her third year of the program, and the soon-to-be seventh-grader at Howard Gardner M.I. Charter School knows she’s gained skills along the way, artistic and otherwise.

“I think I’m not quite as awkward when I walk into new places,” she said. “(Arts Alive) helps you find ways to express yourself and gives you that outlet.”

Cultivating a safe space where students can be themselves is one of the cornerstones of Arts Alive, as is making the arts accessible to everyone, Richmond-Cullen said. The program is open to all children, including those with special needs, and the kids never need to audition in order to participate. Richmond-Cullen also acknowledged the regional school districts as well as local organization Spring Break for Autism, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, FNCB Bank, Ballet Theatre and NEIU executive director Bob McTiernan for their support of Arts Alive.

“Without them, we couldn’t do what we do,” she said.

The proof of its impact can be found in all the students who return year after year. Kayla Bickauskas, 17, has attended the program since elementary school. Now going into her senior year at Holy Cross High School, she’s made memories at Arts Alive that she’ll cherish forever.

“You fall in love with it immediately once you do it,” Kayla said. “You never feel like any person is better than you. There aren’t starring roles and then whoever doesn’t get one feels like they don’t matter. … We’re all going to get the chance to sing and perform. We’re all equal and just doing what we love.”

While 17-year-old Abington Heights High School student Makenna Kethely only began Arts Alive two years ago, she quickly came to realize what made it so special.

“This place is my escape from reality for a few hours,” she said. “You wake up and you get to come here, see your friends and laugh and perform. This is like a big family where you’re loved and supported. There’s no competition, and we all are each other’s biggest fans.”

Some former students have gone on to work in the arts, including Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award-winning playwright Stephen Karam and Scranton Shakespeare Festival founder and artistic director Michael Bradshaw Flynn, whose resume also includes Broadway credits.

Sometimes these performers return to Arts Alive to teach. Performing arts assistant Zo Kiballa, 19, attended Arts Alive through middle and high school and found herself and her confidence through the program. In addition to attending The New School’s Mannes School of Music, she hopes to pass on to others the lessons she learned at Arts Alive.

“There is absolutely no judgment here, and when you first walk in, you realize you’re surrounded by people who get you,” Kiballa said. “They accept you for who you are. … It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am so grateful to be part of this.”