By Kami-Leigh Agard
After two pandemic years that wrought havoc on everyday life, and politics further polarizing community relationships, there is one trailblazing arts organization committed to restoring hope, healing and connection to the thousands of residents who call the Rockaway peninsula and Broad Channel home. New up-and-coming nonprofit, Sol De Vida, aims to bring a brick-and-mortar art museum and arts center for all in the community to not just visit and share, but also contribute to Rockaway’s unique cultural heritage through all mediums of art.
Sol De Vida’s co-founders, Helen Montero and Brandon Jeffries, are both well-known and accoladed on the peninsula for their collective philanthropic work. Montero, a community health manager and coach at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, is a member of Community Board 14, former youth program manager at Far Rockaway nonprofit, Queens Defenders, and co-chair of Far Rockaway Arverne Nonprofit Coalition (FRANC). Jeffries, presently a nonprofit community development consultant, was the manager of Far Rockaway’s Queens Public Library Teen Center for several years, director of youth services at Queens Defenders, and like Montero, served as co-chair of FRANC.
According to Montero, the seed for the idea of Sol De Vida Museum and Arts Center, was planted years ago when she and Jeffries both heard and witnessed the community’s needs on the peninsula.
She shared, “I grew up in Rockaway, and Brandon has worked in the community for years. On many occasions, we always ended up working on the same community outreach projects, and together saw that whatever resources and assistance residents needed, always related to some sort of stress or trauma.
“We noticed that residents of all ages loved to do some sort of art as a creative outlet. Whether you’re from uptown, Far Rockaway, in elementary school or living in a senior center, we all enjoy some form of art, and Brendan and I noticed that here in Rockaway, there’s so many different ways that people want to express themselves, whether through painting murals, performing in concerts, and more.
“So, then we asked ourselves, ‘Why not have a center and museum on the peninsula?’ A physical space where everyone can come together, and enjoy the art they already do, yet learn more, and teach each other, while keeping the culture alive within the community by sharing it from one end of the peninsula to the other, and one generation to the other.”
Jeffries chimed in, “While Helen was serving the community from the health perspective, at the time, I was working as the Queens Public Library Teen Center coordinator, and baked in my mind were the wants, wishes and dreams these kids expressed. So, Helen and I constantly talked about how we could meet those needs. Rockaway has never actually had a center where people of all ages can just do and learn art. We envision an all-around holistic approach for the center and museum. What about youth who want to make art their profession? How do we get them to understand the business aspect of it? Also, what about a dedicated area where they can actually pilot their work or have a gallery exhibition/reception like Rockaway Beach Autism Families recently hosted, featuring local autistic artists, William Hernandez and Grace Moroney. Instead of going to Brooklyn or Harlem, why can’t Rockaway have its very own art center and museum, archiving all of the community’s past, present and even future creatives?”
According to Jeffries, Sol De Vida’s rollout is in phase one—community outreach—in which besides doing pop-up art activity events, they are documenting the community’s feedback on not just what programming, but physical accommodations the arts center and museum must have.
He said, “We are taking people’s feedback. From contemporary or interpretive dance, spoken word, poetry, fine art, music, photography, sculpting, graffiti and more, every specialty has its criteria of needs on what the space needs to accommodate. For example, music artists need a space with proper acoustics. This is why we are seeking feedback on what the physical space must have to properly support each artistic expression. So, these community engagement pop-ups are propelling us to phase two, which is identifying and securing a physical space for the museum/art center.”
In the interim, Sol De Vida is popping up at various events throughout Rockaway. Recently, the organization hosted their first community engagement at P.S. 197 The Ocean School in Far Rockaway, in which they not only sought community feedback, but also invited attendees to join in an art activity.
Jeffries said, “We literally had a crowd of youth running over, grabbing markers and expressing their thoughts and ideas visually.”
Montero added, “That day, we had so many, not just children, but also parents. One parent asked if we could host a cultural dance. Sol De Vida is here to make sure that the unique feel and culture of Rockaway is not lost. If people want to learn their family’s cultural dances or want to teach it to the children, or even host poetry and spoken word events, art exhibits—whatever medium of artistic expression—Sol De Vida will be that space for artists to not just create but archive their work. Even one of the school’s security guards asked if we could host a similar event at their senior center. Our response? Of course, because seniors love art too! These pop-up events are giving us opportunities to see and learn what the community envisions for their very own centralized art center and museum.”
Both Montero and Jeffries believe art is the perfect medium to unite the peninsula’s and Broad Channel’s residents.
Montero stated, “Art is the unifier, and as community outreach volunteers, both Brandon and I can attest that there are many different ways people try to for example, combat gun violence, and other overwhelming challenges facing the peninsula. However, nobody tries art, a universal language that transcends color, socioeconomic backgrounds and other dividers. From photography, murals, cultural dances—you see so much art coming from both the east and west ends of Rockaway, and this art center/museum will incorporate the whole peninsula and Broad Channel.”
Sol de Vida’s next pop-up event will be on Hope Day—a day dedicated nationwide to bring hope through community engagement and transformation—Saturday June 3, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Goldie Maple Academy (365 Beach 56th Street). For more information, and to stay informed about Sol de Vida’s upcoming events, follow them on Instagram/Facebook: @SolDeVidaNYC. Also, for more information about volunteer or collaboration opportunities with the organization, email: SolDeVidaFR@gmail.com