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St. John’s/Newberry UMC’s School of the Arts Continues to Flourish After 25 Years

When Jeffrey Seeley, Music Director at St. John’s/Newberry United Methodist Church at the time, started its School of Arts (known as SOTA) in 1996, he probably could have scarcely imagined that it would be flourishing and one of this area’s most notable schools of art that incubates young artistic talent, 25 years after it was

When Jeffrey Seeley, Music Director at St. John’s/Newberry United Methodist Church at the time, started its School of Arts (known as SOTA) in 1996, he probably could have scarcely imagined that it would be flourishing and one of this area’s most notable schools of art that incubates young artistic talent, 25 years after it was founded.

Seeley’s inspiration and vision drove the start of the organization, beginning with instrument lessons, art, creative writing, and then shortly after began their dance program.

According to Rebecca Ciabattari, director of SOTA, Saint John’s-Newberry United Methodist Church supports many ministries, one of which serves local students and community members within the heart of Newberry. The STJNUMC School of the Arts has provided creative ways to allow students to continue pursuing the arts even in these tough times. Working closely with members of the church council and Pastor Dr. Lenore Hosier, they developed a safety and security plan where students would be safe to follow their dreams and serve the Lord through this unique ministry built upon the arts.

“All of our students are asked to fill out an online contact tracing form before arriving at the church facility for practices or lessons, Ciabatari told Webb Weekly. “This ensures that only students who are healthy and have not been exposed to the virus can attend. In addition, while our usual concert events have been uncertain to predict, we have been working hard to create new ways for our students to continue performing and serving.”

Students at SOTA may develop musical skills or pursue a variety of distanced dance classes, ranging from beginner to advanced modern dance or ballet. Lessons include online vocal instruction with Megan Havrilla — as virtual education has become a staple of society. Their faculty includes piano instructor Diane Havrilla, double bass/guitar instructor Tim Breon, voice instructor Ellen Davis, and violin/viola instructor Ashley Tobin. Instructors are able to teach while masked and distanced from students who also learn while masked. Brass instructors Philip Herfort and Rebecca Ciabattari have utilized a flexible format by offering lessons inside the large spaces within the church, teaching virtually when necessary, or by teaching lessons outdoors in the center courtyard, weather permitting.

SOTA’s dancers have also adopted a flexible format because every dance class is both live-streamed and taught in person when possible. In St. John’s fellowship hall, dancers utilize 10’x10’ squares marked on the floor.

Theresa Kendall, their dance instructor, has been working hard to choreograph dances that would allow students to never leave their boxes, thereby maintaining distance from one another. Last fall, Theresa and Pastor Hosier collaborated to allow the dancers to perform for the congregational services the first two weekends in October. Several additional classes were able to perform outside in the church parking lot for family members and congregants, taking place either before or after church services. Later into December, the dancers recorded video performances to be streamed during shuttered church services due to our state’s ongoing gathering restrictions. These events provided a focus for learning while also acting as a blessing to those who observed our students dancing in praise of God.

“An additional blessing to our community became a reality in October 2020. Our dancers were invited to perform outside the Meadows nursing facility for residents to be able to watch out of their windows,” Ciabattari said. “Parents and family were also able to watch the performance from a distance on the lawn while our students danced for joy. Thinking ‘outside the box’ while dancing ‘inside the boxes’ has proved to be a mission-minded form of service no one could have dreamed of under our former “normal” lives.”

St. John’s/Newberry United Methodist Church Pastor Dr. Lenore Hosier strongly supports SOTA and its good works. “Saint John’s School of the Arts is a wonderful place where the students can learn to express themselves through the arts while experiencing the love of Christ and glorifying God in all that we do,” said Dr. Hosier.

Students and former students of SOTA warmly remember and endorse the SOTA program.

“The community of SOTA is truly unique and makes learning so much fun. I formed many lifelong friendships at SOTA,” Sarah Alexander said.

“Faith-based learning and God-loving people. To hear on a weekly basis of God’s love for us, being reminded that we are made in God’s image and are His children, and encouraged to seek to bring God glory through our dancing, have greatly impacted my worldview, Sarah Myers said. “Through childhood, teenage years, adulthood, and now parenthood, SOTA has continued to be a safe, loving, encouraging, God-honoring environment. The relationships made through SOTA stick with you for the rest of your life! SOTA is not just a place to receive lessons or classes, it’s a community of brothers and sisters, and it’s a beautiful, unique thing for the world to see.”

For nearly 25 years, this art ministry has reached students, families, and our community in a unique, caring manner. Countless testimonials from their students over the years have demonstrated growth in the arts and the love of the Lord through what has become a most special kind of community.

“Looking to the future, we have plans to culminate this time with a celebratory performance in 2022, said Ciabattari. “While SOTA looks and feels much different this year, we are overjoyed to continue to work for our Creator in such a way during these trying, unprecedented times, and we look forward to the bright future we have waiting for us down the road!”

The School of the Arts (SOTA) is currently in a fundraising drive soliciting funding for the 25th-anniversary celebration. Their goal is to raise $50,000 in an effort to both celebrate the past 25 years as well as to grow the programming into the future.

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