Inspiring Okeechobee: Migrant students bring the arts to life

OKEECHOBEE — It has been a whirlwind and flurry of end-of-year school activities. The day after the drama club’s return from New York, an amazing camp began. Having had the privilege of seeing the end result of productions versus seeing the camp from the inside, the take away is that one learns how much goes into a production. This week’s inspiration is a great group of kids who are learning to put on a production of “Shrek the Musical, Jr.”

Participants in the Migrant Summer Theatre Camp are preparing a production of “Shrek, the Musical Jr.” The production is on Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at the OHS Lecture Hall, and it’s free!

The Migrant Summer Theatre Camp has been running strong for the past five summers, and in just a few weeks the students will have memorized 120 pages of music and script, and will put on a production that is just unbelievable!

These students just grab your hearts, and they also make me think of my own husband, the son of second-generation Mexican American migrant farmworkers, who did not have the opportunity to become involved in the arts while in school. What a great opportunity to extend learning beyond the school year and outside of the classroom, in the world of the arts.

Two short weeks ago, nearly 50 students stepped off a school bus. Now one might stop to wonder, WHY in the world would kids want to get up at 6 a.m. or earlier to come back to school? Me too!

Tryouts are held on day one, characters are assigned day two and then the kids learn all the steps, dances, moves and lines of a great play. One would assert they learn so much more! You see, the students that are served by this camp are classified as migrant students. Often for students who migrate with their parents, it is difficult to maintain friendships, learn new skills (sometimes to improve English language skills), teamwork, social skills or participate in the arts. While most of the students are learning the intricate parts of performing on stage, others are here learning how to build the set, make props, work the backstage area and all the other parts that are required to make a performance come to life.

Miss Raulerson directs, while Mrs. Karen VanBeek plays the music for the practices and performances. The choreography is taught by Jennifer Szentmartoni, while the rest of the Szentmartoni family (Steve, Sr., Carol, Steve, Jr. and Joseph) hide away in the construction area building the incredible scenery and props. Additionally, paraprofessional Pat O’Connor and migrant advocate Flerida Algarin assist with costuming and props, while Ky Field and Candace McGlamory are the stage managers. Several members of the OHS Thespian troupe and other local students have given up much of their summer to assist. They include Janessa Carrillo, Kelly Demedicis, Alex Hukreide, Jenna McClanahan, Brittany McCoy, Maria Medrano, Emma Raulerson and Cristian Suarez.

Why Migrant Theatre Camp?

Migrant students are oft mistaken as undocumented children, yet this is typically not the case. The Migration Policy Institute asserts that nearly 80 percent of students who are children of migrant parents, are U.S. citizens while some others are here as lawful permanent residents. The Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report that many students in Florida have common risk factors as do their disadvantaged peers, like poverty and poor health; however, migrant students “face additional challenges exclusive to their situations in the form of disruption of education, cultural and language difficulties, and social isolation.”

The Migrant Education Program in Okeechobee serves over 800 children annually, providing assistance to students under 21 years of age, who have not earned a high school diploma or GED; however, students and/or their families must meet the requirement of having moved outside of the school district within the past 36 months to seek or obtain work in agriculture, fishing, as temporary or seasonal work as their principle means of livelihood. The school district provides secondary age tutorials, out-of-school services for those who have not completed high school, middle school S.T.E.M. activities, and Migrant Summer Camp programs.

The summer camps are not just for the arts. Students are also able to attend the Lego S.T.E.M. lab, art, physical education, middle school S.T.E.M. and PASS Credit Retrieval. There are migrant advocates who work at each school in Okeechobee County, as well as staff in the Okeechobee County School District’s Office of Grants and Special Programs, who are the backbone of helping our migrant students while they are here in Okeechobee. They are the everyday heroes who work with the students and their families in an effort to have every migrant student reach their fullest potential.

When asked why Migrant Theatre Camp, Director Miss Debbie Raulerson notes, “It is important to me to give a creative outlet to students who do not always get the chance for play, or to express themselves in a creative way. I love exposing new students to theatre and hope to grow future thespians and theatre patrons. Taking a shy kid and watching them bloom into their characters is so amazing!!”

I encourage you to come and see this production on Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at the OHS Lecture Hall. It’s free! Let it soak in that these students entered camp on June 5th and they are ready for the show in less than four weeks. These students are the reason it’s much easier to get up early on a summer morning. See you at the show!

The students got into Spirit Week with a crazy sock day.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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