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Providing joyful, hands-on, art-infused education to students around Connecticut is what ASAP! is all about! Big Y has supported this nonprofit organization through its Community Bag Program.

Tell us about ASAP!.

ASAP! was founded in 1999 by JoAnne Torti, our Executive Director, as an after-school program. Since then, we have grown into an arts-infused education organization serving schools and communities across Connecticut. Our mission is to foster creative hands-on learning through the arts.

Our mission is to foster creative hands-on learning through the arts.

What services do you provide to the community?

JoAnne’s original goal was to provide a much-needed joyful and creative learning space for children after school and over the summer. We develop in-school, after-school and summer programs as well as celebrations, all revolving around joyful learning. Joyful learning guides everything we do.

Our programs change every year because we work closely with our community, schools and individuals to identify needs. There are some staple programs like our in-school Metamorphosis Project or our Celebration of Young Writers event, but because the needs change, we change with those needs. Our in-school programs are created in alignment with school curricula. We do many different programs in this capacity, for example, using the artistic process to understand science or embodying math equations through movement and dance. Often, we have kids on their feet moving and making or on field trips. We have them experiencing so many different facets of life.

Our summers have expanded, too: we started with one camp, and now we have six different summer programs, including a theater intensive and summer school.

As we keep growing and evolving, we reach more and more children. While we started with 72 students in 1999, today we reach more than 10,000 children a year.

What sets you apart from other nonprofits in your community?

Our partnerships are what make our impact so great. Nothing we do is in a bubble: we invite all minds to come in. We collaborate with school teachers, counselors and principals on our in-school programming; we work with other art organizations and nature preserves on special programming and field trips, and of course, we develop programs in partnership with our teaching artists.

Our partnerships are what make our impact so great. Nothing we do is in a bubble: we invite all minds to come in.

Our curriculum-aligned programs are quite unique. They are an opportunity for students to explore a variety of topics and express themselves through the creative process and art-making. We often survey our students, asking, what are you most interested in learning? Do you like to learn outside of the classroom? Do you like to learn in small groups? How do you like to learn best? That way, we can adapt our programs to students’ passions and, at the same time, create inclusive spaces. We have pre-k programs in schools where 50% of the kids are special needs, and 50% are typical learners.

Because we create in-school programs, we’re able to reach students with every different kind of learning style, including special needs students. We know schools are often challenged with that, and we collaborate with both students and teachers (through our professional development sessions) to develop programming that serves all students.

We’re fully present from the moment program development begins to the moment we leave the learning space.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work of your organization.

In meetings with schools where they spoke about their needs, we heard that music education is lacking for students who identify as special needs. Unfortunately, in some schools, music is not an option for these students at all.

After these meetings, we started seeking funding for schools that could not afford music ed for special needs students. Through grant funding, we’ve secured a year-long music program called Global Hand Percussion for students at the high school level who identify as special needs learners.

We are fortunate to have John Marshall, a world-renowned percussionist and celebrated teaching artist, leading this program. He’s such a remarkable teacher; his level of connection and care for every single child in the classroom is so inspiring. And he is an incredibly talented musician who brings his own authentic instruments from around the world for the students to play. It’s wonderful to see the students connect with each other through rhythm and song and to experience a new, somatic practice like hand percussion.

What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?

This is hard to answer because I see the impact we have on individuals, which is just as important as reaching a large number. But what we really hold near and dear is our summer camp. It runs for two weeks, and we offer a wide range of arts, movement and nature programming. This year, we will have about 150 campers in grades 1 through 10.

What makes summer camp so special is that we bring together campers from many different walks of life. We partner with an organization called New Opportunities, which provides food, healthcare, and other services to families at or below the poverty level in the city of Torrington, to provide full scholarships for about 52 children to come to our camp.

We never turn a child away. So, even if a family says they cannot afford our camp, we find a way to bring them in. And that simple act of including anyone creates such a beautiful community. Our campers create friendships year after year, and that’s what makes them so excited to return. They create together; they listen to one another; they provide unique perspectives. It’s amazing to witness.

What do you want people to know about ASAP!?

It’s important that people know that we could not do what we do without individuals and partners like Big Y. There is very little funding available to school districts for the arts, so community support for organizations like ours is critical to our survival.

It varies state by state, but every arts administrator or educator will tell you that creative learning is lacking within their district. It’s vital that people understand that they can make a difference, whether by volunteering, donating or just talking about how important arts-infused education is.

How are you using the funds you’ve received from the Big Y Community Bag Program?

We will use the funds to support our 18th annual Celebration of Young Writers, where students in grades K through 12 are invited to submit a piece of their writing for a chance to read it in front of a live audience.

Students whose pieces are chosen by our panel of amazing writers and authors get to work with a coach to prepare to read their pieces aloud at the Celebration of Young Writers, held in June at the Spring Hill Arts Gathering (SHAG). SHAG fest is a four-day festival celebrating live arts, music and community building. Celebration of Young Writers attendees are welcome to stay at SHAG for the rest of the evening’s activities.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I want to thank Big Y! We are so grateful to be selected for this opportunity, which further supports our mission to provide joyful, hands-on, art-infused education to students around Connecticut.

Ali Psomas is Program Director for ASAP! and has been since 2015. She is most passionate about providing opportunities for children that normally are not given access to quality educational programs.

Published December 15, 2022.