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By JáNae Powell

When one thinks of Santa Barbara, surf, sun, and sand are not the only things that come to mind—so does the robust world of performing arts, with venerable community staples like the Granada and Arlington theaters. Unfortunately, this world is not always accessible to many of the community’s students, for a variety of reasons—many have just not been provided the opportunity to participate.

However, in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Education Foundation, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, and virtually all of the performing arts organizations in town, the Léni Fé Bland Performing Arts Education Fund is changing this dynamic.

In 2014, one of Santa Barbara’s most prolific philanthropists to the performing arts, Léni Fé Bland, passed away. In her honor, Sara Miller McCune, co-founder of SAGE publications and a dear friend of Fé Bland, founded The Léni Fé Bland Performing Arts Education Fund to support performing arts exposure for students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Originally from England, Fé Bland was multi-talented; as a successful businesswoman, a trained vocalist, and a life-long supporter of the performing arts, she gave generously to more than 1,000 students to foster their growth in the arts, also taking the time to forge strong, personal connections with her beneficiaries. Today, many of those same students have gone on to professional careers in orchestras and other musical endeavors.

“The Léni Fund will provide exceptional opportunities for students to expand and enhance their education in the world of performing arts,” reports Donna Ronzone, the Visual and Performing Arts Director for the SB Unified School District—a position newly created for the 2015-16 academic year.

According to Ronzone, “The funding will help to ensure equitability of access to world-class performance and performing arts venues which are an integral part of the rich cultural heritage of Santa Barbara.”

Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, every 4th, 5th, and 6th grader will see two performances, and The Léni Fund will also provide transportation to and from the venue. The Léni Fund program requires that education is an essential part of the class trips—instructors are working closely with Ronzone and performing arts organizations to develop core curriculum content to be paired with each performance. Performances are tailored to the young audiences, and fill a 45-to-60-minute time span.

“It has been noted in study after study that childhood experiences in the arts are significantly associated with educational level attained,” says Ronzone. “The broader and richer the arts learning and experiences we can provide for our students, the better chance all students have of attaining their goals in school and in life. The Léni Fund supports our overall efforts to enrich our students’ education and lives as we prepare them for future endeavors.”

Performing arts organizations all over town are also gearing up for the start of this program in the fall. Amy Williams, Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Santa Barbara Symphony, has been involved in planning this collaborative program, and is looking forward to seeing how beneficial the opportunity will be for students.

“For me, it’s important because it’s an opportunity for kids to attend a performance in a professional space that they may never enter, or maybe even feel that they shouldn’t enter,” says Williams. She explains how with The Léni Fund program, “The performances are designed for them, and it’s something they can be excited about and bring back to their families […] Kids see more than you realize—there’s lighting, acoustics, a lot beyond the stage; and [the program] is an opportunity for them to capture all of it.”