School can be challenging at the best of times — wake up early, sit still, pay attention, don’t fidget, raise your hand, use inside voices. For some kids who are facing poverty or a transition to this country as immigrants or refugees, the struggle is amplified by more pressing factors, such as food insecurity, transportation challenges, and adjusting to a new country and language.
Jen Cimino saw the struggle of these at-risk kids in her community of north Omaha. As a music instructor, she could have overlooked the opportunity gap, but instead she reflected on how her gifts and experience might be of service. Enter On Cue: Rehearsal for Real Life, the nonprofit she founded to teach life skills to underserved students through participation in the performing arts.
The On Cue program encompasses dance, music, and drama instruction, with curriculum designed to teach students about independent thinking, public speaking, creative problem solving, and more. On Cue partners with community mentors give students the opportunity to learn about the business of theater, working in teams to develop a production budget and publicity plan, and to produce all of the design elements needed for a musical.
I sat down with Jen, On Cue’s founder and director, to learn her source of inspiration, how she sustains her commitment, and her advice for others looking to connect with their local community.
What inspired you to found On Cue?
Jen: I was listening to a radio program around spring graduation season. They were discussing the capabilities graduates from even the top colleges lacked: the ability to complete a project from beginning to end; creative problem solving; the ability to commit to a deadline, to work in teams, and to communicate with a variety of people. I recognized you use all these skills when putting together a theatrical production.
That sparked the idea for On Cue — we can teach life skills to kids through engagement with the performing arts, preparing students for a future in whatever field they choose to pursue.
Where did you begin?
Jen: I began by sitting down with the teachers and principals working with the community we wanted to assist. We talked about the obstacles facing the students and set out to design a program that would overcome these obstacles. For example, other co-curricular programs are hosted off-site after school, a challenge for kids without transportation. In response, On Cue is incorporated into the school day and offered at the school for all students.
How do you stay motivated?
Jen: Celebrating the small successes. Each week we see small indicators of growth — a student feels good about herself and confident she can perform. Students begin motivating one another and encouraging one another.
After the performance of Annie, the first time on stage for all the students at the school, the students were congratulating each other backstage. A graduating eighth grader expressed concern that when he gets to high school, they might not recognize his talent or cast him in the musical. I overheard a classmate respond, “Don’t worry! As soon as the teacher meets you, she’ll see you have so much talent, she’ll snatch you up!”
On Cue alumni, now in high school, returned this year to support the performance. They volunteered to pass out programs, help with sets, and cheer on former classmates. It’s these moments when students express an interest in continuing involvement in the arts and begin to coach one another that sustain me through the challenging days.
What advice would you have for others looking to make a difference in their community?
Jen: First, think about what you bring to the table. I knew I was a good teacher, had confidence in my teaching abilities, and had worked in community theater. Once you have identified your own gifts, look for the need in your community and think about how you might solve the problem. If you’re going to start your own community organization, gather a great team to work with you — a group that complements your gifts with their own skills.
If you want to work with an education organization, be prepared to make a commitment. It's important to the kids that you are ready to invest long-term to build relationships. That’s particularly true if you are looking to be involved with at-risk kids. First, examine whether you can make the commitment.
If you’re looking for short-term opportunities, consider connecting with Habitat for Humanity or a local soup kitchen. They can more easily accommodate short-term or one-time volunteers.
Looking for volunteer opportunities near you? Contact your local Catholic Charities agency to learn more about their programs and need for volunteers.