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Renaissance combines arts with wellness — for all ages

“Our goal has been to make a difference in the cognitive and emotional wellbeing of children and adults of all ages.” -- Pat Navarino, director of Renaissance Arts and Wellness Center

Great Barrington — The Renaissance Arts and Wellness Center, which has been providing quality individual and group instruction in both arts and fitness from its Great Barrington location, 420 Stockbridge Rd., has always taken a holistic approach to wellness. “Our goal has been to make a difference in the cognitive and emotional wellbeing of children and adults of all ages,” says Pat Navarino — artist, certified art teacher, leadership specialist, and the founder and director of Renaissance. But the center also strives to holistically integrate into the community to better meet its needs, and its recent conversion to a nonprofit organization will facilitate that.

Pat and Nick Navarino, founders of the Renaissance Arts and Wellness Center.
Pat and Nick Navarino, founders of the Renaissance Arts and Wellness Center.

A key part of Renaissance’s new vision is an afterschool program that would run from 3-6 p.m. each day, to include a homework period with certified teachers and an activity that changes each day — “something with which they will engage, which will be meaningful for them,” says Navarino. Lynn Chiavacci, an assistant and fitness instructor at Renaissance, will be doing an exercise program upstairs so that if guardians finish work at five, they can take a class before going home with their child. “The little gimmick we’re adding,” Pat’s husband Nick Navarino says, “is that you’ll be able to reserve your dinner from Restaurant 528 next door, so you can pick up your child and your dinner and go home for the evening and be relatively free of the usual responsibilities.”

The nonprofit status will allow Renaissance to get busses, to set up scholarships for those who can’t afford programming, and, after fundraising, to have a full staff on hand. “Children can’t come from a full day of school and then do homework,” says Pat, “they need to take a breath, have a snack, do art, so with the not-for-profit we can have an art teacher, a fitness teacher, a dance, or science teacher, and the HW center happening, so there’s lots of things going on and they’re moving around.” And there could be a theme for perhaps a couple of months, she adds, “so that there’s a connectedness in their being here.”

This thematic approach is part of what made Renaissance’s summer vacation program so successful in its first year. Focusing on a different country every week, kids travelled through a time machine every morning and stamped passports with every country they visited, said Chiavacci. “We didn’t have enough weeks to be able to do everything they wanted.” When asked if they’d like to do this again, “they were ticking off countries; it was overwhelming.”

Pat says that “creating memorable situations” with 8 to 9 different educators on a thematically-based educational program allows for a deeper understanding of a topic and makes Renaissance’s vacation programming unique. Chiavacci adds, “They do get time to run around and have fun and be active but then they also get time to create, explore. It does a lot more than just keep them busy.”

Fifteen-year-old Cassandra Reese at work in the airbrush class.
Fifteen-year-old Cassandra Reese at work in the airbrush class.

The teachers, whom Pat calls “the top professionals in their field,” are not told how to teach; they simply teach to their passion based on the subject at hand, and “students of all ages feel that passion.” Teachers also take a moment to assess the learning style and ability of the children. “Some are more physical, some are more creative and this type of program addresses the needs of all learning styles,” says Pat. Some children in creative writing classes during vacation couldn’t write yet, but they created stories nonetheless because they could talk them out or draw them.

Meeting not only children, but adults, at whatever level they are via intimate and personal attention is the hallmark of Renaissance instruction, and why it believes it can positively impact a broad spectrum of the community. “We’re not a big gym or a huge dance center. Teachers get to know you,” says Chiavacci; “you’re not just a name in a class. The teacher has time to go from person to person and really help you, whether it’s creative writing, airbrush, fitness, without necessarily having to pay for something that might be more expensive.”

Pat herself has taken some of Chiavacci’s belly-fit classes, after knee surgery and not walking for nine weeks. “If I’m stressed I can sit in a chair and move and she will assist me to still feel whole, and that I’m doing something and getting stronger and that when I can stand, I’ll stand.”

It’s all about inspiring confidence. “People are very quick to say that they have no artistic ability, or they can’t dance because they can’t beat out a rhythm,” says Chiavacci, “but you can move. Those are things your muscles are capable of doing, you just have to reteach them. No, you’re not necessarily going to become Baryshnikov, but yes, you can create, whether it’s moving your body or writing something, painting or drawing — it’s how you’re taught. You can do more than draw a stick figure.”

In addition to visual and performing arts classes, Renaissance also offers a fitness program.
In addition to visual and performing arts classes, Renaissance also offers a fitness program. Above, a belly-fit class, led by Lynn Chiavacci .

When Renaissance partners with restaurants to do painting socials, Pat breaks learning down, using the “vocabulary of previous knowledge, which creates security,” she says. “People who have never painted walk out with a painting. I get people who’ve lost a spouse, gone through illness and they leave feeling well and happy.”

That therapeutic aspect of Renaissance’s work extends into the community. Pat has recently been hired to go to a rehab, which will become a whole new branch of their work. They have a partnership with Gould Farm, receiving residents for additional therapeutic art and wellness programs, and a partnership is developing with “Bridging the Gap,” a Berkshire Hills Regional program for special needs.

And there are always measurable goals. Students who commit to more than one or two classes can really see a difference between their start and their end. At the end of a week of vacation programming children give “a performance that involves all of the disciplines and you can assess, yes they’ve learned,” Pat says. “They know they matter. Parents have told us the program has made a difference in their children’s lives, that their daughter is no longer shy, that she performs and raises her hand in school, and has confidence.”

Students can exhibit what they’ve accomplished at the end of season showcase, to be held June 11 this year. On May 5, Renaissance will again hold its Annual Center / Community Evening of the Arts at Crissey Farms, in which middle and high school students are also invited to display artwork and perform. The event is a fundraiser and Renaissance donates a scholarship to a graduating arts major from Monument Mountain and Mount Everett Regional High Schools.

Renaissance Arts and Wellness Center should be completely nonprofit by the spring. It has programs to coincide with the schools’ vacations. Check out those and all their offerings at www.therawc.com.

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