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O.C. Children’s Therapeutic Arts returns to in-person learning

VERA CASTANEDA | MAY 26, 2021 9:11 PM PT

Roberto Reyes playing viola at OCCTAC with Jairo Mendez and Lupita Marcial. (Courtesy of Mark Dimalanta)

At the start of distance learning last year, Roberto Reyes didn’t feel like logging into any additional Zoom classes other than the required amount, he said.

Reyes, now 15 years old, had spent most of his life consistently attending Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts programs, but finishing up his last year of middle school online was hard enough. It wasn’t until a few months later that he began itching to return to art classes no matter if they were held online.

“Not having something to look forward to every day was driving me nuts,” he said.

This year Reyes is participating in piano, viola, harp and media arts programs at the center in a hybrid-learning model.

By June 7, the center plans to fully transition to having in-person classes limited in size to accommodate social distancing at its Santa Ana headquarters.

The nonprofit provides arts programming to a wide range of residents including at-risk youth and children with special needs. Programs include pre-kinder to adult arts education for those with or without special needs, academic tutoring, parenting education, youth employment and mental health and wellness for adults and seniors.

Ana Jimenez-Hami, founder and executive director of the therapeutic arts center, started the nonprofit in 2000 to honor her Puerto Rican parents’ philanthropic traditions after their tragic death. Her father, in particular, had an affinity toward helping special-needs children and Jimenez-Hami’s doctoral focus is on music therapy.

Reyes’s mom, Beronica, enrolled him and his older brother, Jesus, into music classes at a young age.

“My two kids are on the autism spectrum,” she said. “Step by step, I saw a big difference in speech and different areas, but the key is you have to keep going. You can’t stop the classes.”

Justin Navarette, Jesus Reyes, Roberto Reyes, Angelica Cervantes, William Do-Trinh pictured with their instruments. (Courtesy of Mark Dimalanta)

Although the center saw a dip in attendance at the beginning of the pandemic, its classes are now full. Together with its partnerships in Santa Ana Unified School District, it serves more than 7,000 students.

Arts classes are fee-based, but a large portion of participating families, like Reyes, qualify for scholarships.

Reyes’s latest project involves Prep Arts Academy students playing and dancing to Tito Puentes’ song “Oye Como Va” in a music video, which will be released in the summer.

The project started with conversations between Carlos Beltran Arechiga, the center’s director of arts education, and Phoebe Stanciell, the music coordinator. The song was accessible enough for students to learn and practice remotely.

Justin Navarette in Boyle Heights filming the “Oye Como Va” music video. (Courtesy of Mark Dimalanta)

Arechiga said the music video was a good way to bring the center’s community back together in person.

“It also afforded us an opportunity to go out and shoot in locations, which in turn brought the families back out while maintaining social distancing,” Arechiga said. “It was extremely rewarding to see our students reconnecting. I heard some students, who had never met their instructor in person, say, “Wow, you are real!” And I saw their ability to execute what they have learned, which was amazing.”

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