By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
ECCF Communications Writer
It’s the last day of the Summer Cultural Dance Camp at Utopia Dance Company in Lawrence, and students are learning Bomba, a style of dance that originated in Puerto Rico.
“There’s no right or wrong in Bomba,” instructor Louis Casiano tells the room of seven to 17-year-olds. “That’s why it’s one of my favorite dances.”
The girls are dressed in traditional red, white and blue skirts, full of ruffles and mesmerizing movement. The boys don straw hats. The younger students look to the older youth for guidance, for where to step or how to place their hands. The room is filled with rhythmic drumbeats, energy and wide smiles.
“We can’t control what goes on outside these walls,” said Casiano. “But in here, this can be their safe space.”
Casiano co-founded Utopia Dance Company in 2020 alongside Elvis Lora. Their mission is to share Latin dance and culture through instructional classes for adults and youth, community events and competition. In 2022, Casiano and Lora created the free summer dance camp to give area youth a safe and healthy place to spend time; to learn a bit about what, for many of the camp’s participants, is their own culture; to develop confidence and leadership skills – and to have fun moving their bodies.
The camp – supported in its inaugural year and again this year by ECCF’s Greater Lawrence Fund (GLSF) – is five weeks long, and each week, youth learn a different Latin dance. They discuss identity, history and heritage. They encourage students to dance freely, to express themselves and to connect to the music.
This summer, Casiano and Lora, who envision expanding their studio someday, doubled the number of camp participants.
Now, summer has come to an end for Utopia Dance Company and the 43 additional organizations that received a 2023 grant from GLSF. But their impacts will persist long after the summer sun sets and the leaves start to turn, as participating youth carry what they’ve gained into their futures.
“This might be the thing that inspires them to make an impact,” said Casiano.
For more than 30 years, GLSF has supported high-quality summer programs that enhance the social, academic and emotional abilities of youth from Greater Lawrence; promote safety and mental and physical health and reduce summer learning loss. The fund works through the collective giving of many donors who are passionate about supporting the health and wellbeing of Greater Lawrence youth.
“The Greater Lawrence Summer Fund is a great example of how powerful collective giving can be,” said Josh Miner, longtime GLSF committee chair. “Because of it, the Fund is able to support a variety of engaging programs that reach so many young people who might otherwise miss out on these meaningful experiences.”
This summer, more than 4,500 Greater Lawrence youth participated in incredible creative endeavors, explored the outdoors, designed their own community service programs, learned to play new sports, received career support and academic enrichment, became leaders and so much more. Most importantly, GLSF-supported programming empowers youth to make lifelong memories that can often change the trajectory of their lives.
“It’s really corny to say, but we’re like a family,” said Glorimar de los Santos, who has been a participant at YDO – Youth Development Organization in Lawrence – since the fifth grade. Now a high school graduate, de los Santos is co-director of YDO Summer, the organization’s five-week summer enrichment program supported this year by GLSF. She shares the title alongside peers and fellow co-directors, Mya Garcia and Myah Salazar, also long-time YDO participants.
The year-round mission of YDO is to grow a vibrant community of self-motivated learners and leaders. YDO Summer, which takes place at the nonprofit’s sprawling 22,000 square foot-space across two floors in the Everett Mills building, offers full days of arts, STEM and enrichment – about 35 classes in all – for rising third through eighth graders. It’s a rather incredible sight to observe more than 170 summer participants cooking, learning cosmetology, in theater rehearsal, building, writing, dancing, performing science experiments, painting, crafting, working out – and so much more.
But the most striking impact of the program can be felt just by talking to de los Santos, Garcia and Salazar, who are all just 16 and 17 years old. They are poised, articulate, compassionate and mature beyond their years. After being selected to direct the summer program, they spent the winter hiring a teaching staff of 45 high school and college students, the spring planning Friday field trips and opening summer registration, and the summer making sure everything runs smoothly.
“The summer program is really where everything comes full circle,” said YDO Executive Director Mark Kampert.
Young participants grow into leaders, gaining confidence and inspiring the next generation to aspire to become leaders themselves.
“I grew up with a lot of these kids here, so I have a connection with them,” said Garcia, whose favorite aspect of YDO is mentoring the younger students. “It gives me energy, and it’s so important for them.”
In his 11 years as executive director, Kampert said he’s seen firsthand how impactful these relationships can be, with the same mentors and mentees pairing up year after year. “The YDO summer program is really a model for kids teaching kids,” he said.
Each summer, the GLSF focuses on closing opportunity and achievement gaps by expanding access to opportunities like these for youth across Greater Lawrence, who face many challenges, like higher rates of poverty.
“We know that structured summer learning and enrichment opportunities are not evenly and equitably distributed across communities,” said Hehershe Busuego, ECCF’s director of programs and racial equity. “That’s why we are so grateful to the many donors who contribute to the Greater Lawrence Summer Fund and help power this critical work.”
But with demand for such programming continuing to rise along with operating costs, additional support is needed to expand and sustain the work.
“The dedicated money for summer programming is pretty limited,” said Kampert. “We’re often piecing a lot of different things together.”
“Funding is huge so we can train more staff,” added Lora. “The biggest thing is funding, so we can really expand the work, hire more staff and do things like buy more dance costumes for the kids.”
About the Greater Lawrence Summer Fund at ECCF
For more than 30 years, the Greater Lawrence Summer Fund (GLSF) at ECCF has focused on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for thousands of youth in Greater Lawrence each year by providing enrichment activities during out-of-school time. For more information or to donate, please visit www.eccf.org/greater-lawrence-summer-fund/.