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OCU & El Sistema Oklahoma : A Partnership in Perfect Harmony

A partnership in perfect harmony

by Brooke Barnett

An OCU music student leads a class of elementary school students practicing at El Sistema.

For Cathy Busey, music has always been a saving grace. Growing up, Busey recalls how music served as a refuge during a difficult childhood and played a defining role in her life into adulthood. As a music major at OCU, she has a firsthand understanding of the importance of music and music education. Years later, Busey, and her husband Phil, found themselves concerned with how music and the arts were frequently being taken out of public schools. The couple felt compelled to find a way to make an impact in the community using music education.

“The company we own had grown significantly, and we felt very blessed,” Busey explains. “We decided that we were doing well enough that it was time to give back and make a difference. We believe that to those who much is given, much is required.”

It was Mark Parker, dean of the Bass School of Music, who first brought an organization called El Sistema to the Buseys’ attention. He knew Busey was hoping to find an afterschool program to invest in, and felt that El Sistema was a great match.

“Dean Parker shared information about El Sistema in Los Angeles, so I decided to go there and see it for myself,” she recalls. “I was blown away. El Sistema Los Angeles was in a neighborhood that was full of gangs, and yet the program was producing beautiful music. They had created an orchestra where the students truly felt like they were a part of something important.”

El Sistema is a community-based music education program originally founded in Venezuela in 1975. The program was widely renowned for its role in recruiting young people in impoverished circumstances and using music to transform their lives.

El Sistema USA supports a nationwide movement of programs inspired by the original El Sistema, with a focus on effecting social change by providing life changing music opportunities for children. Currently, El Sistema USA has 140 member organizations spanning 35 states and serving more than 20,000 students. Each program is as unique as the community that it serves.

Busey was impressed by how the El Sistema program in Los Angeles had instilled big concepts in their students simply by giving them an instrument, guidance and lots of support.

“I felt like we needed El Sistema in Oklahoma City,” she says. “We spent two years designing what this would look like. We decided who we wanted to serve, how kids would be selected, all the nuts and bolts. We knew we wanted to offer services five days per week and serve students in Oklahoma City Public Schools. We then focused on mutually beneficial ways that OCU faculty and students could be involved in our vision.”

Founded by the Buseys, El Sistema Oklahoma is a creative partnership involving St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and OCU’s Wanda L. Bass School of Music. The teaching artists at El Sistema Oklahoma are professional musicians, selected for their experience and expertise. ESO started with five participating schools, and has quickly grown to nearly four times that size. In addition to musical experiences, the program includes additional support such as meals and homework assistance. ESO also collaborates with participating schools to help with any academic, attendance and behavioral challenges in their students.

“We want to serve the kids that might be in trouble, that are facing issues, that need mentors,” Busey adds. “This program is a game changer. These students need someone to believe in them, and we are now graduating kids that might not have ever graduated from high school otherwise.”

Phil feels the impact that ESO has on students cannot be understated, and many former ESO students come back to volunteer with the organization after they graduate.

“That is such a powerful statement to the effectiveness of this program,” he explains. “We give them an instrument as a show of trust and faith, and we see that kids who we never thought would have a chance can do just as well as kids who have had more opportunities. They often choose to come back to be part of the organization that had such an impact on their lives.”

Kim Wilson, ESO’s executive director, says this impact has never been more apparent than today, with ESO approaching its 10th year of service to the community.

“One of the most significant things about our program is watching the students grow up and experience adulthood,” Wilson reflects. “Though each student has a different path, it has been particularly special to see graduates of our program turn around and come to work at ESO as site help, teaching assistants or classroom teachers. It has been amazing to see that ESO can still provide a place for community and belonging, even after their high school years.”

Wilson credits the partnership between ESO and OCU with providing students with a sound education and a true community experience. Many OCU music students who volunteer with ESO go on to become teaching artists, allowing them to develop ongoing relationships and have a consistent presence in the lives of ESO’s students.

According to Michelle Kiec, OCU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, the partnership between OCU and ESO is continuing to expand and explore new ways to serve students.

“While music is an essential foundation of El Sistema, I have been delighted to partner with colleagues across the university, not only in music, but also in nursing, psychology, exercise and sport science, athletics, and student services to build programming that benefits all learners,” Kiec says. “The partnership with El Sistema Oklahoma provides a practical opportunity for OCU students to apply the knowledge they learn in their classes. The ESO students provide real-time feedback, and working with ESO helps prepare OCU students with real-world experiences that propel them into careers and graduate study.”

This past fall, OCU and ESO began exploring ways to expand the partnership to include healthcare for students. In conjunction with OCU’s Kramer School of Nursing, ESO hosted a health fair in March. The health fair included health screenings provided by students in OCU’s Community Health Nursing course and mental health screenings provided by students in the Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Psychology programs.

An OCU music student leads a class of elementary school students practicing at El Sistema.

“The partnership is beneficial for OCU nursing students to gain more knowledge about individuals from diverse backgrounds, and to gain experience in providing health promotion and risk reduction education,” explains Dean Gina Crawford of the Kramer School of Nursing. “We hope to expand opportunities to support the students at El Sistema. I hope to see the partnership continue to meet a need for their organization and provide meaningful experiences for students at OCU.”

Kim Wilson hopes that expanding these partnerships will provide access to new and diverse resources, people, materials and events that all come together to support the overarching vision of ESO - to help their students succeed throughout their lives.

“We would love students to continue to use OCU’s partnership to explore post-secondary options, to pair up with mentors exploring various career fields or even just to navigate current life,” she adds. “The impact of one positive adult in a child’s life can easily change its trajectory, but the impact of a strong community of multiple people in a child’s life can be astronomical.”

Looking back on the past decade of service, Cathy and Phil Busey see the many ways ESO has already significantly impacted its students. Organizational highlights include having the Oklahoma City Philharmonic play the world premiere of an entire symphony written by an ESO student, playing in the halftime show with the Pride of Oklahoma marching band during a University of Oklahoma football game and being named as a Carnegie Hall PlayUSA community partner organization for four straight years.

“It's not just about playing music,” Cathy Busey concludes. “It's about helping them to understand their opportunities. It’s showing them that if they stick with school, how many things can be possible. We are trying to show them that, if they follow their dreams and work hard, anything is possible.”

For more information about El Sistema Oklahoma or to find out how you can volunteer, please visit www.elsistemaok.org, contact [email protected] or call 405-505-1494.

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