At the Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) men’s basketball game Jan. 29, there was an energetic half-time dance performance. This performance was a particularly special treat for certain youth in attendance.
However, these eight girls and one boy, ages 8 to 13, weren’t in the stands watching the show, rather, they were in it.
“It was a chance of a lifetime,” Abreeyah Samuel, 10, said. “It felt good. It was a good opportunity.”
Abreeyah is a student at the Eisenhower Science and Technology Leadership Academy in the Norristown Area School District. She is also enrolled in the STRONG (Striving to Reach Our Needs and Goals) program, a before-and-after-school enrichment program. STRONG, which caters exclusively to youth living in Norristown, is run through the Audubon branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA.
It was through this program that Abreeyah and her fellow youth dancers were able to perform during the MCCC Mustangs’ first home game of the season, which took place at 5 p.m. at the MCCC main Blue Bell campus.
In addition to performing live for the first time, the STRONG dancers were also given the opportunity to share center court with the college’s own student dance ensemble.
“It was a lot of fun,” Lynell Vaughn, Pottstown resident and MCCC student dance ensemble member, said. “It was good to work with the youth.”
According to Charmeas Headen, of Philadlephia and a fellow MCCC dance ensemble member, a rehearsal was held just prior to the basketball game, during which STRONG and MCCC dancers met for the first time.
“I loved it,” Headen said. “They were so much fun and had so much energy.”
The STRONG Program
According to the Freedom Valley YMCA website, the STRONG program takes place throughout the entire school year, and offers camp opportunities during the summer.
Strong is a grant-funded program and licensed through the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. It was started in 2004 as a way for the Audubon Branch YMCA to extend its services to low-income families and at-risk youth in the Borough of Norristown, according to the website.
The program allows families to drop off and pick up their children at the Roosevelt School in Norristown, where the program currently calls home. STRONG staff, using a school bus, then transport them to and from students’ respective schools.
STRONG after-school activities include homework help, cultural exposure, arts education, exercise classes and life-skills lessons, among others.
The program has apparently grown in popularity in its eight-year existence. This school year, a cap enrollment of 60 students for the STRONG before-and-after-school service has placed interested families on a waiting list. Typically 75 students sign up for the summer camp.
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the urban area of Norristown,” Dawn LeCato, a parent of three children in the STRONG program, said. “The counselors and teachers do a good job guiding them both intellectually and physically.”
According to Annette Bryans, Audubon YMCA Youth Services director, due to its popularity, considerations have been made in finding a larger facility to host the program, hoping to keep the location within Norristown.
In the meantime, opportunities for youth enrichment continue to grow, recently through the new STRONG dance group.
Bryans said the students’ MCCC half-time performance marked the potential for a developing partnership between MCCC and the Freedom Valley YMCA.
“The kids love it. I think it’s a great opportunity to expand new horizons,” Bryans said. “We would welcome the partnership.”
The partnership could lead to more students and faculty working with STRONG students and potentially other aspects of the Freedom Valley YMCA. Bryans said that the developing partnership is thanks to STRONG Program director Rebecca Savage.
Savage has worked with the STRONG program since 2008. As its director, Savage said she has a deep commitment to the goals of the program, and even more so to the students themselves.
“To me, it’s about working where the kids are, inspiring and encouraging them to look past their surroundings,” Savage said, speaking after the half-time performance. “Every morning, before they get off the bus, I tell them, ‘Make good decisions.’”
Savage earned a bachelor’s degree in Dance and minor in Business Administration from Muhlenberg College in 2012. She is also an alumna of MCCC, earning her associate’s degree in Liberal Arts in 2009, followed up with an associate’s in Elementary Education in 2010.
At MCCC, she studied under the college’s instructor and coordinator of Dance, Dr. Melinda Copel. It was also at MCCC where she became the president of the college’s Student Dance Ensemble at the time.
“I’m a dancer and performer by nature,” Savage said with a smile, adding that she had always wanted to incorporate dance instruction in the STRONG program.
“I think dance gives them a goal to reach,” Savage explained. “It’s a reward. They have to earn it.”
Savage said she wanted the STRONG dance group to not only introduce another cultural and physical program for the students, but also praise and recognize those who exemplified what it means to be a STRONG student. Such students, she said, complete homework and demonstrate good behavior, dedication and respect.
Simultaneous to the start of the STRONG dance group this January, Savage was also working with Copel, her former dance professor at MCCC, on an internship. According to Savage, the internship was to assist Copel with her class instruction, including choreography work.
When the MCCC Student Dance Ensemble was asked to perform for the half-time show, Savage said that her professor encouraged her to take the reins and design the layout and choreography.
She took it one step further, and sought to involve her STRONG dance students, as well.
“For a lot of years now, I felt it could be a good relationship between the Y and Montco,” Savage said, speaking after the half-time performance.
After just six separate-group rehearsals, and the one intense combined rehearsal before the show, the MCCC and STRONG students were all smiles as they walked onto the basketball court. Their smiles remained after their performance as they received an enthusiastic applause from those in the stands.
“It’s inspiring, and you get to have a lot of fun and do stuff you don’t always get to do,” Tyrese Short, 13, a STRONG dancer, said on why he joined the dance group and the program itself. “That way I could get noticed, meet people and go places.”
For more information about the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA STRONG program, visit www.fvymca.org.