Giving Kids an Art Start

Gina Samardge leads a music and movement class at Astor Head Start in Beacon.

Gina Samardge leads a music and movement class at Astor Head Start in Beacon. (Photos by Flynn Larsen)

Creativity project partners with preschool program

After spending a few years establishing themselves in the community, and building their scholarship funds, Gina Samardge and her colleagues at the Compass Arts Creativity Project in Beacon wanted to expand their programs for children.

In October, the nonprofit began providing free art and music classes to Astor Head Start, a federally funded program in Beacon that offers early childhood education, health, nutrition and social services to low-income families and students with disabilities. 

“We’re trying to diversify more,” Samardge explains. “A big piece of that is building relationships: connecting with the Beacon Farmers Market, hosting tables at festivals and working with the Beacon School Foundation to go into the public schools.”

Samardge and her colleague Romina Robinson had connected with Astor in 2019 but the plans were scuttled with the pandemic. By the time bringing the outside world in was possible again, Compass had received funding from the Genesis Inspiration Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to providing arts programs for children in underserved communities. 

That allowed Compass to approach Jazmin Raby, the director of Astor Head Start, with a winning proposal: “We can provide this for a year and you don’t have to do anything.”

“We set up a meeting with the Head Start teachers, spoke about what we were hoping to do, discussing the finer points of how much time we’d need in each room, whether we would have a classroom space, details like that,” Samardge recalls. “We wound up thinking it through together.”

Students at Astor participate in a class taught by teaching artist Romina Robinson.

Students at Astor participate in a class taught by teaching artist Romina Robinson.

The program provides arts instruction to about 80 children between the ages of 2 and 5, including some who have disabilities. Astor Head Start offers music and art, but its budget does not usually allow for teaching artists.

“We believe in the power of process-based art-making and feel that everyone should be able to access it,” Samardge says. “This age is such a rich developmental stage, and being able to provide these resources is so incredibly important.” 

Raby admits to initially being concerned that the Compass instructors wouldn’t be able to hold the children’s attention, “because, you know, they’re 3. But they are engaged, even our toddlers, even our special-needs friends, which I love to see because that attention can be hard to get from them. They absolutely enjoy it.”

Using mirrors, Astor students draw 
self-portraits during a class led by Compass Arts.

Using mirrors, Astor students draw 
self-portraits during a class led by Compass Arts.

Robinson describes the Head Start program as an amazing year. “As a teaching artist, I’ve been in places where there is resentment from staff. Because we had a conversation with teachers — this is a collaboration, you have agency here — they were a lot more on board. There was a little reticence in a couple of classes in the beginning, but that changed quickly and relationship-building helped.”

Samardge studied music education in college and was later exposed to Orff Schulwerk, a developmental approach that combines music, movement, drama and speech into lessons that are similar to a child’s world of play.

After moving from Ohio to New York City, Samardge became a member of the Brooklyn Conservatory and did sing-a-longs at a coffee shop and, inspired by Pete Seeger, music classes for toddlers. Later, she moved to Beacon and began teaching at The Randolph School in Wappingers Falls. Compass emerged out of music classes she taught and now includes teachers who specialize in visual arts, writing and theater. 

Samardge says she remains fascinated by “how various art forms can influence one another, such as combining a drawing class and a dance class, where the artists dance and the dancers draw. I’m interested in what emerges.” 

Along with holding classes at Beacon Music Factory and the First Presbyterian Church, last fall Compass started a dance program for seniors. “We meet people where they are, seeing how people, once they take a class, feel the magic,” she says. “As we look to grow, in terms of our mission of helping build just and equitable communities through the arts, we have to shift how we look so we’re not just working with people who aren’t comfortable reaching out to us.”

Compass would like to bring its efforts to other Head Start programs. It is hosting a free workshop to help Beacon middle school students make films for their peers and Samardge hopes to work with the carceral system, including juvenile detention centers. “That’s further on,” she says. For now, Compass is looking at adding intergenerational programs, some in cooperation with Common Ground Farm.

Samardge takes none of this for granted. She says she feels “so fortunate in carving out this little career and having it be so community-based.”

Compass Arts will host a community festival with theater, improv, dance, an art exhibit and the Beacon Rising Choir on May 6 and 7 at The Yard, 4 Hanna Lane, in Beacon. See compassarts.org for details.

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