(Geoffrey Lopes photo for boston.com)
After 20 years of serving East Boston, the youth performing-arts organization Zumix today was awarded one of a dozen 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards.
The award cites Zumix for "making an important contribution ... by engaging youth in the arts/humanities." It was to be presented to co-founder and Executive Director Madeleine Steczynski in Washington, D.C., today by Michelle Obama.
Zumix was a finalist for the award in both 2006 and 2010. This year, it was chosen from among 471 nominees and 50 finalists.
“It’s something that we’ve been applying for and really wanting to get for a long time,” Steczynski said. “We’re serving more kids than ever so I think it was just ... we’ve grown to the level where they [the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities] really thought it was a good fit.”
The award comes with a $10,000 grant and additional support in the coming year handling the center's increased visibility.
Steczynski began teaching students music in her apartment in Maverick Square in 1991, following a wave of youth violence in the community. Today Zumix serves more than 400 students, occupies new quarters at the renovated Engine Company 40 Firehouse in East Boston and partners with neighborhood schools.
This past summer, for the first time since the program began, Steczynski took a three-month sabbatical.
"I guess when I look at this award and I look at how smooth this summer ran, I really feel like we’ve created something that’s got a life of it’s own and that’s going to be here well beyond my involvement and maybe beyond my life span,” she said.
Like Steczynski, many on the staff of Zumix have been involved with the organization for years.
Songwriting and performance coordinator Corey DePina, for example, first came to Zumix as a teenager and has grown from being a student there to holding an artistic management position. He believes the award is about recognizing the students of Zumix for their hard work.
“Who doesn’t like a pat on the back and a little bit of proof because I can tell the kids all day that they are fabulous, and my friends can tell me all day that I’m fabulous but when it comes from a stranger it means a lot more,“ he said.
Depina said he believes the award will motivate the kids to continue to learn and express themselves through performing arts.
Steczynski said Zumix students have begun using their experiences to launch or influence their careers.
“I would say in the last 10 years in particular, we’ve had a lot of young people who really have gotten into the idea of what Zumix does and are pursuing various aspects of that in their careers," she said. "That means kids who have gone to school for sound and engineering, kids who have gone to school for ... artistic sort of therapies, and kids [have gone] to school for education and want to do something in creative education.”
Zumix had the chance to pick one student to go to Washington with Steczynski. The staff chose Ixchel Garcia, 15, who has been with the program for seven years, doing everything from sound engineering to playing guitar in an all-girls rock band.
Said Depina, “We saw her blossom from an independent music student to an actual leader.”
Garcia has tried almost every program Zumix has to offer while still working hard in school and maintaining a job at her grandmother’s restaurant in East Boston. She hopes to attend MIT and study engineering after high school.
“She’s probably our best audio engineer that goes out and runs sound at different events," said Kimberly Dawson, Zumix’s program director.
"She’s the go-to person for that."
Garcia and her mom flew to Washington with Steczynski early Monday to do a little sightseeing before the ceremonies. It was Garcia's first trip there.
This afternoon Zumix has invited students and staff to a surprise party to announce and celebrate the award.
“It’s a little unreal to think that someone in the White House thought about us,” Depina said.
Dawson said the organization is expecting at least 100 people. Zumix's renovated firehouse will be turned into a function hall.
As the students file in for the big announcement, a disco ball, confetti poppers, music and food will add to the excitement. Zumix’s radio station has prepared a “breaking news” broadcast to grab the attention of partygoers. Dawson is also hoping to be able to show footage of Steczynski receiving the award from First Lady Michelle Obama earlier in the day.
Steczynski said she's has been excited about the award for months now, but is conflicted because she also wanted to be at the party with her kids and staff.
“They’ve got all sorts of little surprises up their sleeves," she said of the staff. "It’s like having a surprise party for ourselves in a way. So it’s going to be great.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.