Vivian Nix-Early spends her Tuesday afternoons sitting on a bright-blue carpeted floor surrounded by a handful of singing 4-year-olds. She literally does not miss a note, singing everything from the participants’ names to the books on the shelf and the thank you’s when the students put their instruments away.
Nix-Early is co-founder and chief operations officer of BuildaBridge, an arts education-and-intervention nonprofit organization located at 205 W. Tulpehocken St. in Germantown.
The organization relies on the power of the arts to bring hope and healing to children, families and communities. It is one of the only organizations in Philadelphia working with homeless and abused children, along with their families. Buildabridge aims to give the children a well-rounded experience and help them learn how to become expressive through arts-based methods.
Their work does not stop in Philadelphia. Over the years, the organization has built alliances internationally in places such as Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua and Kenya, carrying the same methods and ideologies with them to these foreign lands.
A local need
On this particular afternoon, Nix-Early does not need to travel very far to make a difference. She can do it right in Philadelphia.
She finds herself in a shelter for abused women, surrounded by a handful of 4-year-olds whose faces light up as soon as they see her. Nix-Early sits among the scattered toys and picture books, strumming her guitar, playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
This particular program is called the Music Competence for Young Children Project, modeled after the Music Together curriculum.
The class and curriculum are based on the idea that all children are musical. Everyone is capable and can sing in tune, keep a beat and participate with confidence. Nix-Early says she hopes to create an environment that supports such learning.
She performs for this small handful of students as though she were standing on an enormous stage, performing for thousands. They love every moment of it while excitedly going along with the rhythm while playing the drums, dancing and pretending to be various animals like alligators and elephants.
Nix-Early’s fervor becomes contagious. Eventually, even the shiest student in the room offers a few tiny strums on the guitar and some light tapping on the drums.
Distraction from hardship
This type of expression becomes a release and relief to children who have experienced so much in heir very young lives.
Nix-Early sings everything she says during the 40-minute class, not just to get her students engaged in the musical act but also because she wants them to hear a different sounding voice than the ones they might be exposed to outside of the classroom.
She provides a soothing, comforting learning environment, building a platform with music that reinforces critical thinking, vocabulary, history, geography and mathematics.
The class will also, ideally, help the children develop a social and spiritual bond, building self-efficacy and resilience.
The children are kind to each other. They share. They say thank you when given the next instrument to play. They sing along with all of the songs. They are concerned when they sense that something is wrong with one of their fellow classmates, who today seems as though she just does not want to be involved or play.
A variation on art therapy
BuildaBridge’s main focus is to engage these students in therapeutic art as opposed to art therapy, which is a clinical approach where goals are set between the therapist and the patient.
“When we talk about therapeutic art, which we help all of our teachers to learn, we recognize that when we are making art together, it is a healing process,” said J. Nathan Corbitt, co-founder, president and CEO of BuildaBridge.
The organization is built upon the belief in art as a healing process for these children, who live in transitional housing.
“Art-making has a way of touching our emotions and bypassing our defenses,” Nix-Early said.
Kelsey Doenges and Amanda DiLoreto are students at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.