SMARTS celebrates 25 years

Students in the SMARTS program, from left, Penelope Parish, London Cowan, Aleah Mufleh and Nina Pondillo perform a skit during the organization’s 25th birthday celebration Wednesday at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel social hall in Youngstown.

YOUNGSTOWN — When it comes to playing his electric guitar, you could say that Mike Gibson has hit an E-sharp — for sharp encouragement.

“I’ve been involved with them for about six years. I started playing guitar, and they encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing,” Gibson, 17, a Lowellville K-12 School junior, said.

He was referring to being part of Students Motivated by the Arts (SMARTS), which he said has given him added impetus to pursue a music career.

Gibson also was among the more than 260 students, teachers, volunteers and others who attended the SMARTS Community Arts School kickoff 25th birthday celebration Wednesday evening at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel social hall, 343 Via Mount Carmel Drive.

Being in the SMARTS program, which was established in 1997, also has afforded Gibson “an opportunity to shine and show things I wouldn’t be able to do in school or elsewhere,” Gibson said, adding that he began taking guitar lessons when he was 8 or 9 and also has learned music by ear.

In addition, Gibson is taking college courses.

SMARTS, which is in the Ohio One building downtown, offers access to and training in music, dance, painting and other aspects of the arts for area K-12 students, with a focus on underserved populations. The program also strives to enrich the community via promoting student achievement, inspiring self-discipline and impacting cultural and academic literacy through the fine and performing arts, its mission statement says.

The two-hour celebratory dinner also included a variety of student-led performances by Gibson and several others.

Delivering the keynote address was Rebecca L. Keck, SMARTS’ president, who said the two primary skills she learned and had ingrained before starting the program were discipline and focus. Keck was emotional at times as she also described her foray into SMARTS, which included spending a lot of time in the art room when she was in school.

“Looking back, this was the birth of SMARTS,” Keck said.

Everyone has the potential to be an artist, and art has the power to fill voids, allow people to further communicate with one another and better make sense of a sometimes chaotic world, she explained.

Keck shared with her audience the story of a student who had taken formal piano lessons but had difficulty connecting with the instrument. Being in SMARTS encouraged him to try the violin — something he likely would never have done without the program, she said to applause.

“My intention has always been that SMARTS would exist for you,” she said, adding that the classes are free.

The evening also included a few testimonials from those whose children have been positively impacted by the program. Among them was Alexa S. Blackann of Sweeney Chevrolet in Boardman, whose teenage son became interested in the design field, thanks to SMARTS.

“It’s making an economic impact in our Valley by investing in future leaders and entrepreneurs,” Blackann said.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the program worked with an estimated 4,000 students during the 2021-22 school year and has expanded via numerous community partners, Keck noted. She also made abundantly clear the SMARTS’ underlying goal in its creative outreach.

“We are people driven to serve people,” she added. “We are always striving to reach those students who need us the most, and connecting with those who do this work the best. Everything we do is about opportunity.”

In addition, SMARTS has more than 60 teachers who have diverse backgrounds in visual art, music, theater, creative writing and dance. Many of them also are recording artists, dancers, opera singers, classical musicians, soloists, music directors in churches and perform in rock, jazz and other bands.


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