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Straz Arts Education Program, Broadway Buddies, Unites Kids From Different Learning Backgrounds

A little bit exchange program, a little bit Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a little bit theater boot camp and a lot of laughs — that describes the remarkable new program launched by Patel Conservatory's Acting Director of Community Engagement and Education Programs Alice Santana and theater instructor Matt Belopavlovich.

Inspired by Hillsborough County Schools' PEERS program, which pairs a typical student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) student to form friendships and social skills, Alice and Matt realized our Patel homeschool students wouldn't be able to participate — and neither would one of our beloved partners, Pepin Academies, because they serve only IEP students.

So, the two made a logical leap — why not start a Straz peer program matching up our Patel Conservatory homeschool students with Pepin Academies students? They coined the program "Broadway Buddies" since the kids would be participating in a graduated curriculum based on theater appreciation. First, simple introductions; then, theater games and pre- and post-activities; the Pepin kids attended a Patel Conservatory kids' production; the homeschool kids attended a Pepin production; eventually, they all go see Anastasia together in May with their newfound appreciation of musical theater and of each other. They even have a Broadway Buddies Barbecue planned before the matinee.

"The Broadway Buddies program supports the next generation of passionate arts practitioners and patrons by passing on theater etiquette skills and developing a love of the art form," says co-creator Matt. "At the same time, it teaches them how to develop and thrive in a more equitable society."

All the buddies must agree to a leadership code before they can participate. Each student is expected to learn, practice and demonstrate leadership skills based on mutual respect, hard work, positive attitudes and responsive listening. "Part of an equitable society is making paths to leadership open to everyone," says Matt. "There's no better place to give and take direction or explore perspective and problem solve than in creating a work of theater. It's wonderful to see the kids shine."

This season's Broadway Buddies also acted as a pilot group to see if the curriculum would work. Because of the success of the partnership, Alice and Matt hope to broaden the scope of Broadway Buddies next year to include more students and more community partner schools.

Each Patel Conservatory student will need to apply for the program since it is designed for the success of young people who want hands-on experience with leadership skills and reaching out to others.

"It's the sweetest exchange, because going to a different school and being with people you're not used to being with is hard — at any age," Alice says. "But humans have an inborn desire to find common ground, to laugh and play together, and teach and learn from each other. In this program, we're guiding kids from different learning backgrounds to peer-support each other through one of the most fun mediums we have — musical theater."

You can support the future of programs like these with a planned gift. To learn how, contact Chris Harrell, CFRE at or 813.202.1514.