Lillian Alonzo Marin was eight years old when her family moved to the United States from Mexico City. In the United States, she benefitted from arts programs in public schools, but when she returned to Mexico City years later, she found that similar programs didn’t exist there.
Marin felt a void, she said, from the time she was 12 until well into her 30s, and that’s why she founded Artistic Dreams International in March 2011. The program is based in New York, although Marin plans to expand it to Mexico.
“I realized that there were thousands of other children in my situation—that I couldn’t be the only one,” she said. “That’s what urged me to begin this, so that other kids could express themselves through the arts sooner in life.”
ADI provides youth with free access to the arts. Volunteers at the nonprofit give guidance to young people, whose art is sold for revenue—part of which goes back to ADI programming and part of which helps establish college funds for ADI participants.
The programs began in September and were originally held in downtown Manhattan, but Marin has since moved them to the George Bruce Library on 125th Street in Harlem.
“It was easier to be closer to kids in the community, and they can do the program, then do their homework and get to bed at a decent time,” Marin said. “It’s got to be convenient for families.”
“It’s a huge transformation that takes place,” Sanna Valvanne, ADI’s choir director, said.
Valvanne conducted and trained musicians in Finland before moving to the United States, where she continues to conduct and work with young people. Valvanne met Marin while conducting a choir camp, where the two connected right away.
“I’ve always loved singing and teaching,” Valvanne said. “But, especially since working in Mexico and Guadalupe, I see how working with these kids can really change the lives of the children.”
Valvanne’s approach to teaching music reflects ADI’s policy of allowing kids of all skill levels to join the music program without auditioning. Valvanne loosens up her students by asking them to stretch and make strange noises. She wants to ensure that they are comfortable before she begins teaching them songs, many of which are in different languages.
Bronx resident Erika Miranda brings her 11-year-old son Manuel to choir rehearsals. Manuel is autistic, and Miranda said that he has improved significantly since joining the program.
“The chorus helps him to progress in social skills and communication,” Miranda said. “It also helps him to be more focused and calm. Any time he’s doing homework or taking a shower, he’s singing.”
With schools unable to provide as many after-school programs as they once did, Marin said that children are more likely to make bad choices when they’re not in class. Many Harlem residents have blamed recent crime increases, which are often attributed to “youth crews,” on a dearth of programs for young people in the neighborhood.
“When kids don’t have programs like this, sometimes they will accumulate emotions within themselves that may find an outlet in a negative way,” Marin said.
ADI intern Emily Neil, BC ’14 and a Spectator associate news editor, said that seeing the children’s responses has confirmed her belief in the importance of arts education.
“Here is a group of kids who had only met today who are singing together and holding hands, and that could only be created in a setting where creativity is at the center,” Neil said.
As the children Neil described took a bathroom break during that first rehearsal, Marin pointed out the camaraderie they had formed after just an hour.
“They make friends automatically and they’re playing,” she said. “Kids who are a part of something bigger than themselves know that they have a chance to be a part of something exciting.”