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Teen leads pilot emergency response program at Bowie in Austin

16 Oct

Jonathanand von Wupperfeld

For days after escaping severe flooding, an African American boy of six or seven wandered homeless inside the Austin Convention Center dressed only in a dirty T-shirt, a worn pair of jeans, and tennis shoes.

The image still haunts 16-year-old Jonathan DeLong, eight years after the two met following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina over the Labor Day Weekend in 2005.

The unidentified child and some 4,000 victims of hurricane Katrina set up residence inside the Austin Convention Center. DeLong, though only nine years old at the time, responded by giving away his toys to the boy and other evacuated Louisiana children.

It’s an experience that inspires DeLong to this day; he currently trains with other South Austin teenagers to become first responders in future disasters.  He also serves as the youngest volunteer of the statewide task force, Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR.) DeLong also represents the only teen member of Region 6 – throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana – to serve on the nationwide Youth Preparedness Council in Washington, D.C. at a summit meeting twice a year. DeLong will serve two years on the council formed last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.)

Last July DeLong served three days on the national council in Washington D.C., meeting with FEMA and Homeland Security representatives to talk about strategies, initiatives and special projects that interest him.

One of his special projects includes the formation of a pilot program at James Bowie High School that trains teens to become potential first responders for everything from 911 types of emergencies to full-blown disasters throughout their community.

DeLong leads a teen Community Emergency Response Team (CERT,) program as an after school extra-curricular club, sponsored by Bowie physics teacher Patricia Dittmar.  The program is the first of its kind located in any of the schools within the Austin Independent School District, said John Gaete, AISD emergency management coordinator.

Teens enrolled in the CERT program may not respond to any on-campus critical incidents, but they may respond to emergencies and disasters off campus or within their neighborhoods and community. The program also intends to raise teen awareness of response readiness in the event of a disaster, critical incident or emergency situation.

“Jonathan DeLong is a unique individual serving on a national panel – the Youth Preparedness Council. It’s a pretty big deal,” said John Gaete, emergency management coordinator for Austin AISD. “He is impressive. I don’t think we could have chosen a better leader for CERT at Bowie.”

Jonathan DeLong felt inspired while tagging along with his mom, mental health  responder Laurie DeLong, while caring for people displaced by Katrina, who lived in the Austin Convention Center for weeks afterwards. He also acted an honorary member of the Austin Adult CERT program over the past seven years.

“I can still remember everything about that time in 2005 at the Convention Center. I remember the smell. Sometimes when I get a whiff of that smell or something bad in the trash, that smell brings back all those memories,” Jonathan DeLong said.

The smell was caused by the water and other elements that evacuees had to wade through to escape the storm and had permeated their clothing and parse belongings they brought with them from home. The scenes inside the convention center also assaulted his senses, he said.

“I had to walk through triage – (an area where medical service personnel determine the degree of emergency treatment needed for incoming patients based upon their injuries.) There were countless people. I looked to my left and saw nothing but cots and I looked to my right and saw nothing but more cots along with a projector screen hanging down where people got to see pictures of their houses destroyed. Everyone stood there watching and waiting to see what they had left – which wasn’t much – as the reports about the damage done by Katrina in Louisiana came in from CNN,” DeLong said.

“I used to carry inside my toys in my backpack. There were a lot of children my age or younger and I would give them my toys. It would help them to cope with what they were going through because there was someone else there who was their age and who understood what they were going through.”

His presence initially caused some hesitancy among TEXSAR first responders at the Austin Convention Center, he said.

“As long as I stayed with my mom and didn’t stray too far away, or try to take on things that I couldn’t, then it as all right,” he said.

“There were so many effects of Katrina that flowed into the emergency response world – conflicts and miscommunications existed within even the Austin Convention Center – and that multiplied tens of thousands of times over throughout the national community.  Looking back, I don’t how people were able to keep it together and work as a team, but they did.”

Jonathan DeLong said that he made a special long-lasting connection with another boy whom he met while spending a few hours every day over the span of several days volunteering after school with his mother, in the convention center helping the displaced.

“I also remember specifically this boy about my age, of a different ethnicity.  He always had on the same jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. He looked like he had been taken care of by his parents. He stuck out because every day that I went down there to the convention center I saw him with his family. I would always sit down with him. We would talk. He was only about 6 or 7 years old – at that time he was my age and he had nothing. I gave him a lot of my toys – Hot Wheels cars and stuffed animals. I don’t remember so much of what we said, as much as just him. I became somewhat close to him and always talked to him a little bit longer than anybody else.”

Jonathan DeLong never learned his Louisiana friend’s name, nor did he ever learn where the boy went after his stay at the convention center.

“I went to see him that last day and he wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened to him. His cot wasn’t made. I never got to say ‘goodbye.’ For some reason, that has just stuck with me,” DeLong said. “I do think about him quite often. He forever changed me. I wish I could remember his name so that I could at least try to find him. He’s who got me interested in emergency response.”

He said that he also felt as a youngster that the team of adult first responders seemed out-numbered by the shear numbers of people with their dire needs inside the temporary hurricane shelter. He remembers the experience instilled in him a sense of duty and obligation for years afterwards to provide added support for future disasters.

“People would take bandages, medicines and supplies as they left the convention center. They would take anything of significance – food, drinks, and electronics with them. Other times, they had (contagious) diseases as they left the convention center; they left with the potential of spreading the diseases out in the community,” he said. “Responders had to think both of themselves and everybody else left inside.”

Years later, Jonathan DeLong said he felt a call to be a first responder to victims of a fire at Steiner Ranch that destroyed 50 homes and burned 125 acres in September 2011. He was attending classes at Bowie that day when he heard the news on a television inside  a journalism class.  He remembers feeling frustrated by having to wait for the school day to end before he could help CERT alongside of his mother. Though adult CERT  responders must be at least 18 years old to officially respond in an emergency, Jonathan DeLong accompanied his mother to provide food and water to first responders at the Steiner Ranch fire station.

“The first responders would come in shifts and they’d rehydrate. We offered any first aid that they needed before they went back out,” Laurie DeLong said. “At his age, there hasn’t been any problem with him (Jonathan) doing that.”

For the DeLongs, the pilot CERT program at Bowie represents the realization of their shared goal that began at the Austin Convention Center following Katrina six years ago.

Jonathan DeLong and about a half-dozen other teens currently enrolled in the program at Bowie, will help realize that goal when they complete 20 hours of after-school training in November. Students committed themselves to attending classes from 4:30 until 7 p.m. each Wednesday throughout the fall semester in order to earn their CERT certification.

During their final class they will gain first-hand experience by participating in disaster drill simulations from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday Nov. 16 while training TEXSAR across the street from the Sunset Valley Police Department, Laurie DeLong said.

Austin’s TEXSAR group has opened another branch in Galveston; together the two groups provide search and rescue and recovery when requested, throughout the entire state, she said.

“They serve primarily all across the state, but they have gone out of state when requested,” she said. “We do a lot of body recovery too. When they (TEXSAR) don’t expect to find the person (who is reported missing) alive; those are the calls we (CERT) typically will go on with TEXSAR. We manage the commands for them.”

CERT teens will gain the increased awareness and readiness to help other adolescent victims of Central Texas disasters and large scale emergencies.

“John DeLong is a remarkable young man. His experience and knowledge make him a great advocate for Teen CERT,” said FEMA Region 6 Individual and Community Preparedness Specialist Bill Bischof. “We plan on connecting him with teens in all our Region 6 states so that he can encourage them to participate in Teen CERT.”

The Bowie teens who will become first responders, will fill a void, Jonathan DeLong said.

“Youth make up about 25 percent of the population in a disaster. Some of the problems that youths have to go through are different than they are for adults – we have school, we have lost girlfriends, a lot of times youths get really attached to their pets, their makeup, their hygiene products,” DeLong said.

“With guys, it’s their wallet, their keys, their car that they miss – because the car represents freedom at this stage in their lives. You know, when you get your wheels and the world feels like your own. It’s just a different array of problems and they deal with disasters differently when compared to adults.”

He said teenagers make the best CERT program trainees.

“Because they’re younger, they’re easier to train and their will is stronger. They will be able to carry what they learned here today, forward into the rest of their lives,” Jonathan DeLong said. “They’ll use these skills, even if they don’t stick with CERT or TEXSAR. They will be able to use these skills in other aspects of emergency readiness in their community.”

Jonathan DeLong also sympathizes with adult victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“I met this really tall man who was in his late 20s. He had short hair and he was African American. He wore shorts and a white T-shirt and flip flops. He came up to my mom and I. We didn’t see him coming. He was extremely emotionally distressed. He was worried about the things that he to leave behind.  A lot of those people came to Austin on buses from the Louisiana coast. The buses were so crowded that the people couldn’t take a lot of things with them. He had lost everything. He didn’t know where the rest of his family was. He was crying. I could barely understand him because he was sobbing so hard,” he said.

“That’s when my mom told me ‘All right Jon, you’re going to have to stand back. This is something I have to deal with alone.’ She took the man away to talk to him and to get him help. I remember Mom taking him off. I watched them walk away and they rounded a corner. I didn’t know what happened to him after that. For some reason, that really stuck with me.”

At the time that she volunteered to help people displaced by Katrina, Laurie DeLong also worked as the director of Phoenix House for teenagers with substance abuse problems. Currently, she is employed by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Another Bowie teenager, 17-year-old Patricia Van Sickles, said she wanted to join the CERT program because some day she would like to become a nurse for the United States Navy.

“I’m just trying to get into medical stuff and get myself ready for any situation I might be put into working as a nurse for the military,” Van Sickles said. “I want to go into the medical field and I want to be able to help people while I’m still young.”

Sixteen-year-old Hannah Konyecsni would like to study forensic science in college and the CERT program at Bowie prepares her for worst case scenarios.

“You never really know when something bad will happen. You have to be prepared for anything – especially with a lot of the (tragic) events going on in the world lately,” Konyecsni said. “Both of my parents are doctors and I’ve witnessed them stopping to render to aid in car crashes and I want to be able to help too.”

Students enrolled in the CERT program receive a textbook, Community Emergency Response Team, that includes unit goals, special topics, and public health considerations.

Mike von Wupperfeld, safety officer for the Austin Travis County EMS spoke to the Bowie CERT group Oct. 9. Von Wupperfeld presented an organized unit of training, complete with a Microsoft PowerPoint slide show, for the CERT trainees entitled “(Disaster) Medical Operations.” The training provides both student participants and others pertinent information about how to respond to critical incidents that occur within their neighborhoods and community.

Von Wupperfield showed the students how to apply medical gloves without touching contaminated any surfaces. He said that most medical gloves typically only last as long as six months when exposed to the Texas heat before they deteriorate so they are a maintenance item that needs checking. Furthermore, emergency responders should never use Latex gloves because so many people have allergies to them. He also demonstrated how to blow into the medical gloves to ensure their structural integrity. In disasters, responders may use buckets of diluted bleach or soap to wash their gloved hands often between patients as replacement gloves may be in short supply.

“When you go between patients we either clean our gloves using a liquid soap or change our gloves to avoid cross-contamination of the sick and injured,” Von Wupperfield said.

“After removing your gloves, you should wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing the song ‘Happy Birthday’ – 20 to 30 seconds. Soap and warm water works well; you don’t have to use anti-bacterial soap.  If you use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, don’t wash it off – let it air dry — alcohol kills the ‘bugs’ by the drying action.”

Before responding to a critical incident or disaster, emergency responders often place dust masks and goggles on their faces to keep liquids or debris from getting into their nose, mouth or eyes.

At the scene of an emergency, exercising caution as the best rule of thumb, he said.

“When you arrive at an emergency, assess the scene’s safety – using a windshield view as you’re driving up to it,” von Wupperfeld said. “Ask yourself ‘What do I see? Do I have the knowledge, the skills and equipment to help?’ before you respond.”

Initial evaluation involves a quick Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START) protocol that identifies those with immediate medical needs, delayed needs, minor needs, and the deceased. Performed quickly, START allows for the fast assessment of any number of casualties.

Next a responder should assess their patients with a secondary head-to-toe triage to further identify their needs. The assessment can start by asking victims at a scene “Can you tell me what happened, where you are, or who you are?” he said. At times, the injured suffer a rapid deterioration in their memory of what happened at a scene. A hands-on head-to-toe assessment follows.

“Look, listen, and feel,” von Wupperfeld said. “Look for medical identification an injuries in a head-to-toe assessment. Work from the head first down to the legs.”

Von Wupperfeld said that emergency responders likely will provide bags of color-coded tags that identify treatment priorities. Each tag will have bar codes on them to aid in tracking the patient from the scene of a critical incident to EMS and to the hospital.

He said the three top killers at the scene of any disaster are: airways obstruction, excessive bleeding and shock. He said the START Triage system remains the same for any emergency responder, including those who worked at Austin City Limits at Zilker Park during the first two weekends this October.

Von Wupperfeld also taught students how to assess victims of fire or severe chemical burns and taught them to apply bandages. When assessing a burn’s severity, responders use the size of the injured person’s palm to measure the percentage of the body burned; one person’s hand equals 1 percent.

He also said the depth of any burn may increase without immediate medical attention; he told the students never to apply ice to any type of burn, only water to cool it down. For someone under the age of 10 or older than 50, any type of burn requires immediate care based upon their expected rate of recovery. He showed the students how to apply sanitized gauze bandages to burns to hands.

Von Wupperfield also showed students how to apply splints for victims who have broken bones. Students practiced setting splints on one another and applied sling bandages to support them.

He also taught students how to look for signs of hypothermia, a condition that occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops below their normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or somewhere between 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit as a result of exposure to cool or cold environmental conditions. He acknowledged that for some people, normal body temperature ranges slightly below 98 degree Fahrenheit.

“People with hypothermia are very irritable and may argue with you and tell you that they are fine,” Von Wupperfeld said. “They’re probably shivering severely; when they stop shivering it becomes a life-threatening emergency.”

Von Wupperfeld warned students about the dangers of using untreated or unfiltered water in an emergency.

“Before using any water, in a disaster, use proper water sanitation methods,” Von Wupperfeld said. “Boil it for several minutes and let it cool or treat the water using official water purification tablets, following package instructions. Be aware that the tablets don’t work instantly.”

He said water temperature and foreign material in the water affect how long the purification process takes. For those who can afford them, the camping style water purification systems take the guess-work out of purifying water for drinking and cooking.

One of the most dangerous health threats found in water at disaster sites or flooding scenes is often giardia – a microscopic parasitic organism that causes diarrhea illness and if untreated, possible death in infected humans and animals, he said.

The CERT program formed nationally following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack and disaster.  In Austin Sonia Goodman, is the CERT coordinator for the City of Austin Homeland Security Emergency Management Department.

To be published in the Oak Hill Gazette

Tejano singers Ashley Borrero and Angel Gonzalez perform with Austin’s Vimana band

16 Oct


Three time American Idol contestant and two-time X Factor competitor, 25-year-old Ashley Borrero of Oak Hill, plans to become the next big Tejano singing star, the likes of Selena.

Currently, she has been performing with a local Tejano bandleader who she hopes will write an original hit single for her.

“I’d like it to be a kind of pop and Tejano mix sung in Spanish and I want to release it before the end of the year,” Borrero said. “We’re working on the basics of the song; we have the melody and we’re working on the lyrics and fine tuning it.”

Borrero performed with the Tejano band, Vimana, led by Angel Gonzalez at Barbacoa and the Big Red Festival Oct. 13 at the R and J Pavilion in San Antonio.

Gonzalez, nominated as “Best New Artist – Male,” for the 2013 Tejano Music Awards Oct. 19 in San Antonio at the Lila Cockrell Theater wrote and sang “No Debes Jugar.”  His song also appeared in the soundtrack for Agony, released by Reel Talk Films. Last year Gonzalez received a nomination  for a Tejano Globe award.

Borrero performed on stage with Gonzalez and his band at the end of the day’s events for St. Paul’s Catholic Church fair in Austin in Austin Sept. 27.

The two sang the cover song, “Juntos Hasta Murir,” as a duet. The song originally sung by Jesse Turner and Elida Reyna, earned them the title of best male and female vocalists and “Duo of the Year” at the 2012 Tejano Music Awards.

Borrero and Gonzalez hope that their musical partnership becomes just as successful.

“It was something that was really different – as far as doing two lead vocals on stage, but it was nice. You get to share the stage with somebody and you don’t get so tired out,” Gonzalez said.

Other band members include keyboardist John Garza, and John’s father-in-law, Sam Sambrano, who plays bass; guitarist Mike Sevilla; drummer Sammy Gamino; and percussionist Javier Ramirez.

“What is great about Angel and I is we are friends. We have a good rapport with each other on stage. I do a lot of things on stage that he doesn’t do and he does a lot that I don’t do. We kind of balance each other out. It’s a win-win situation,” Borrero said.

Borrero and Gonzalez met while auditioning for Canta Tejano Idol in 2011. She and Gonzalez’ images that year graced the cover of The Austin American Statesman’s Austin360 section.

The band has been practicing regularly with Borrero over the last couple of months, singing covers.

“It’s been a lot of fun. We have a good chemistry. They’re all talented musicians and know their craft and know what they’re doing. I’ve learned a lot from them. I feel like I’ve been able to hone in on my skills a lot better. It’s been a win-win situation.”

Her “Plan A” is to release a single original recording by the end of the year for air play on Tejano radio stations. She also will continue to work her “Plan B,” competing in 2014 as a serial contestant on live reality talent shows like X Factor and American Idol. She also hasn’t completely dismissed the possibility of acting someday.

Meanwhile, she works a day job and performs with Gonzalez along with his band Vimana at events throughout Austin and San Antonio.

“Any time something involving singing or acting comes along, I’ll totally jump at it,” she said. “Trying to get these things myself is the way to do it. If I don’t put everything into my future that I can for myself, I don’t think that I’ll feel that I have earned it.”

Last March, her mom, Josie, and her younger sisters, Lesley, 23, and Courtney, 20, traveled with her to New Orleans, to compete in the X Factor.

She had auditioned for X Factor in Austin in March of 2012 and the show’s producers immediately selected her from more than 7,000 people to advance to the second round. However, she failed to advance to the third round of competition.

There are three tiers of competition for X Factor before the show’s producers send videographers to film snippets of the contestants’ lives. By the second tier, producers also split the contestants up into four specific groups identified as: “boys,” “girls,” “groups,” or “artists over 25.” Producers placed Borrero in the “over 25 group.”

“I actually liked that – being in the over 25 group, because I look younger than 25;  so I knew I would actually stand out in that group when I sang,” she said.

For American Idol contestants must advance through a gauntlet of four tiers of competitions. The competitions at the first round involve about 10,000 and the second tier included about 200 people – it’s all one group and acts do not segregate by gender or age.

Borrero first caught a glimpse of a large live audience and famous judges as an audience member when she and her family paid to attend an X Factor recording in Austin at the Frank Erwin Center in August of 2012.

“The host of the show asked if there was anybody who could sing or who had tried out. My mom got me to raise my hand and I got to stand up and sing in front of everyone. I just loved that whole experience. I thought it was so different than American Idol. So when X Factor came to New Orleans I decided to audition again,” she said.

They booked a hotel and they planned a vacation trip to New Orleans, but they had car trouble. So they rented a car, but the seven-hour trip ended up taking nine hours instead.

Borrero sang Selena’s “Contigo Quiero Estar,” the same song that Borrero sang a cappella at Tejano Idol in 2011. She also sang it last spring in New Orleans a cappella for producers of the X Factor.

When Borrero returned to her hotel, she knew that she still needed a couple of back up songs. She fretted over her song choices.

“I have always had a tough time picking audition songs. For me, the Spanish came a little easier because it’s different. Especially in New Orleans, it was unique for me to sing a Spanish song. It would not be unique here in Texas to sing a Spanish song because so many people are bilingual. I knew that they were going to ask me to sing another song. I sang three songs total. They loved the Spanish song. I could hear them debating whether to allow me through, but I also sang ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ by Miranda Lambert and ‘New York State of Mind,’ the Glee version,” she said.

“It was pretty quiet; it was just me and these two producers in this booth. I could hear them say ‘Oh, I love the Spanish song,’ but this time I felt like I was so upset because I was so close to getting in. It always bugs me when there is something that I could have done. You can tell if it’s just ‘you don’t have what we’re looking for this season.’ Instead, I felt like I could have sung a different song and gone a little further.”

Borrero does not yet have a talent agent or manager.

Another round of competitions begins next spring in 2014. X Factor provides all of their competitions in March. American Idol schedules all of their competitions during the summer. Borrero plans to compete again.

“Where I’m coming from is, I’m looking for the best song choices. I always love to sing ballads. That’s my thing, but in a performance everyone wants a dance song. I have to keep it upbeat. It’s something to come to terms with until people will stand around and let me sing a few ballads,” she said.

A lot of Tejano musicians come from San Antonio; there are not many in Austin.

“I don’t think I’ll be going into a studio with a song until probably late November. I’m a perfectionist too. Before I even step into a studio I would make sure that the song is where it needs to be and my voice is where it needs to be. I don’t like synthesizers or tuners. Of course there is tweaking and fine tuning to do, but I want whatever plays on the radio to sound just like I would perform live and to stay true to the artistry of singing,” she said.

“For a good while I was pretty frustrated. You come out of high school and you have all these ideals of how your life is going to take off and then reality sets in. I’ve come to terms with my age. Right now, I’m in a really good place. I know exactly who I am. That’s when good things really start for you. Now I’m able to go after everything I want, coming from an adult realistic place,” she said.

Two years ago, Borrero made it through to the second round of the competition held in Austin for American Idol.

She’s hoping that her big break will come in December when she records and plans to release a Tejano single, sung half in English and half in Spanish.

The 2006 James Bowie High School graduate grew up in South Austin listening to the music of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, an American solo pop Latina star known simply as Selena, who died in 1995.

“I had a really great love for Selena. I always had a really deep connection to her as I’m sure a lot of Hispanic girls did. When she died it hit me really hard. I was only like eight years old. Somewhere somehow I kind of felt like I had a responsibility to take up where she left off.”

Borrero feels deep cultural and historical roots in Tejano music.

“If I can, I’d like to make people aware. Most people don’t know what Tejano music is. I think that if Selena had lived she would have been able to take it worldwide and everybody would have known what it is all about,” Borrero said. “I still think Tejano music is underrated. I want people to know just how great it is.”

Austin’s radio station 102.7 FM plays pop and some Tejano music and so does KTXZ 1560 AM.

“That’s great, but I feel still some people don’t know. I’ve talked to people whom I’ve interacted with through work or school. A lot of them don’t know what Tejano music is. I tell them it’s a mix of everything – it’s definitely got a strong beat. It’s definitely dancing music, but there’s so much more to it. There are different aspects  to it – it’s a combination of everything.  You have a bit of country, a little bit of jazz.”

Tejano music may be subdivided into genres such as conjunto, mariachi, ranchera, cumbia, Reggaetown and corrido.

“The cumbias have a little bit of a beat to them that you can dance to, or you could have the rancheras that have a little bit more of a romantic feel. There is so much you can do with it; there’s so much that it is,” Borrero said.

Tejano music defies Spanish music’s stereotypical labels.

“There’s a difference between Tejano music and Latin music. There’s the Latin American music that is a pop rock in Espanol kind of thing. Then there’s Tejano,” Borrero said. “They have two different feels, two different genres. That’s why we have our own Tejano Music Awards. You can’t really combine the two. They have completely different feels.”

Borrero grew up listening to Tejano music at home.

“My parents listened to it and they grew up with it, they danced to it.  They would go to dances, weddings and quinceaneras and the music would be playing,” she said.

Her father, Mike Borrero owns Mike’s Formal Wear in Austin. Her parents and their three daughters had plenty of opportunities to hear Tejano music played live for festive occasions.

“Being my father’s business is what it is, we were invited to weddings nearly every weekend,” Borrero said. “The music really really touched my heart and I’ve always said that my goal in life is to some day be able to dance to that music some day with someone like my parents danced to it. Seeing my parents dance to it and seeing how much in love they are inspires me. Even if I couldn’t sing it, I’d still want Tejano music to be a part of my life.”

Borrero started singing Tejano music while she was still enrolled at Kiker Elementary, performing in her third grade choir, the Kiker Keynotes. She sang in sixth, seventh and eighth grade talent shows at Bailey Middle School. Then she performed her freshman year in Bowie Idol in high school. Once she joined Silver Stars her junior year, she put her singing career on pause.  Her senior year, she competed for the first time in Austin for American Idol.

“Up until that point I had great confidence in everything I did. Everything that I had tried out for, I made. So when I went into the audition, I went in thinking ‘oh this is going to be so much fun and I’m going to be in the show.’ I had these high expectations. I was only 17 years old. So I auditioned and I bombed,” Borrero said.

“It was so bad and I didn’t even get through the first round. I just cried and cried and cried. I thought to myself: ‘why do I want to put myself in this kind of position?’ So, I would sing for myself, but I stopped singing in public, I stopped singing in general. I would sing, just to sing to myself.”

In June of 2009 after her grandfather, Angelo Borrero, passed away and again she tried out for American Idol, this time in Dallas.

“That hit me really really hard. So I decided that I was ready to tryout for American Idol again, because I knew that he would want me to live my dreams and I wanted to do that for him,” she said.

She did not advance beyond the first round of competition, but she did not feel discouraged. She also joined the choir at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church and she started taking private voice lessons from music teacher Blythe Cates. She also started attending Austin Community College and enrolled in musical theater courses.

Borrero has been singing since she was three years old.

“We have a huge family and I have a lot of cousins – a lot of girl cousins and they’re all older than me. Every time we had a get-together they would want to sing songs, but I would be the one took the stage and push them all out of the way.”

The first song she learned to sing was “Touch Me All Night Long,” released by Cathy Dennis in 1991 for the movie soundtrack: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2; Freddy’s Revenge.

“It’s so inappropriate for a three-year-old to be singing, but I was so in love with that song. I thought it was awesome, so every time I heard it on the radio or at a family party I would say ‘Get out of my way — this is my song’ and I would sing it. Everyone thought it was the cutest thing. That’s when my parents saw that singing is what I love to do.”


Published online 10-16-2013 with Tejano magazine

Two Beards Theatre Company presents ‘Mr. Marmalade’

15 Oct


While her babysitter has sex in another room with a boyfriend, a four-year old girl wearing a pink tutu plays “house” with a middle-aged man plagued by anger issues and addictions to pornography and cocaine.

A “pretend” world created by a child’s neglect and exposure, sets the plot for Mr. Marmalade, a play written by Noah Haidle in 2004. It has more edge to it than a straight razor, but it’s just the type of show that the co-founders of Austin’s newest theater company hope will launch their artistic success.

Andrew Robinson and Jacob Henry, met in middle school, remained high school buddies and then went to college together before they teamed up to create Two Beards Theatre  Company.  Their first show, Mr. Marmalade, opened Oct. 4-5 at the hip east side’s Salvage Vanguard Theatre, 2803 Manor Road. The show continues with 8 p.m. performances Oct. 11 and 12. The theatre seats about 50 people and tickets sold for $10 each online in advance from the website

The story combines humor with shock appeal – a 20-year-old actress plays the character of an articulate four-year-old who dreams up an imaginary friend, an abusive businessman portrayed to be decades older, but less wise.

“I’ve always wanted to do it (Mr. Marmalade) and I enjoy Noah Haidle’s work. I always enjoy his plays. He has a very interesting writing style that is very fun and light-hearted, but then it touches on some serious issues at the same time,” Robinson said.

Haidle’s work addresses social issues such as child neglect, substance abuse, and divorce. Not everybody “gets” Haidle, but Robinson does; he enjoys Haidle’s perspective and likes to provide key insight.

“He has a very different outlook for sure. I think he is very specific in his writing in the way he presents things. For instance, Mr. Marmalade is a story told through the eyes of a four-year girl. And it is very interesting to get into the mind of a four-year old. It can be very fun to see these crazy kooky characters and just come into Mr. Marmalade and just enjoy and laugh,” Robinson said.

“Or, after watching it, if audiences dig a little deeper they’ll see the other layers and say ‘Wow, that girl was creating all of this in her mind.’ It’s very interesting to think of why a four-year-old girl would have an imaginary friend who is abusive. It takes a certain child to imagine that and it takes a certain child who has had a certain experience to be able to have imagined that. I think if you go to that second layer, the writing is very very interesting.”

The four-year-old character, Lucy, creates an imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, who both abuses her and neglects her; she also has “an affair” with a love interest character closer to her in age.

“It’s interesting that she (Lucy) has control over all of her characters and their direction. For her to have created someone who is mean to her, or abusive — once you start to think about that — brings up a lot of different issues, social issues like child neglect, child abuse, substance abuse and divorce. Haidle writes on multiple levels,” Robinson said.

Haidle successfully delves into a little girl’s haunted and nightmare-like surreal existence inside her own mind.

Haidle’s tale, like favorite childhood stories and fairytales, makes the audience  squirm a little bit with his characters’ choices as well as their resolved and unresolved conflicts. Haidle’s story seemingly balances the funny, the beautiful and the magical touchstones of a young girl’s dream with the darkest and most sinister undertones. The audience knows the story is not real, but so much of it feels real.

“It’s definitely a story that can’t exist in our reality, but the issues are very much real in our present day. So he brings forth this very story using imaginary friends – with adult actors and actresses to play these beautiful characters. In our world, you don’t have four year olds played by 20-year olds, but you do have those horrors that are present – child abuse, substance abuse and neglect,” Robinson said.

The imaginative story told through the eyes of beautiful and memorable characters, reveals issues that remain ugly and reclusive in the real world.

Robinson said he and Henry wanted their first show produced by their new theater company to leave an impression, to make a statement, and to leave their “stamp of style” on the local community. They vowed to “wow” their audiences.

“I think Mr. Marmalade feeds Jacob’s and my creative vein in a show that we both enjoy and we enjoy the style of writing and characters. It did what we thought we could do visually. It’s a show that we thought would bring a lot of our talent out,” Robinson said.

The costumes designed by Greensboro, North Carolina costume designer Kathleen Ludwig remain true to those used in other productions of Mr. Marmalade play currently showing nationwide. However, Lucy’s cotton candy-colored tutu appears neon. In his set design, Henry narrowed his color choices to just two from the Crayola 100-crayon box selection; the result creates a deeper and richer “out-of-this-world” appearance. Lighting designer Dylan Rocamora adds more profound hues to the stage’s ethereal scenes.

“We wanted the show to almost represent what Lucy saw as her reality, so some of the things we heightened a little bit – of what she perceived her world to be. There is this very vibrant red couch on stage and a very large embellished purple chair. The outside of the house is this beautiful white house with a beautiful bright red door – one that could almost represent what her false reality is, her imaginative reality,” he said. “That is the style that Jacob (Henry) was trying to achieve with the set design and with Dylan’s lighting design as well.”

Together Robinson and Henry created a surreal and ethereal perspective that suspended Mr. Marmalade for the one-hour and a half of each audience viewing. They hoped audiences would forget their environments only to experience the world inside the mind of a four-year old child.

“We did scenes from Mr. Marmalade in college for a class that was student-directed. It was a shorter version and it was a fun show to do. So when Andrew and I sat down to talk about what shows we wanted to do, we picked one that we thought people in Austin would enjoy,” Henry said.

“Since both Andrew and I were raised here, we knew that we wanted a show that was kind of edgy and weird. It’s a great script and a great story that fits Austin.”

Robinson and Henry contacted the publishing house, Dramatists Play Service, that owns the rights to the script and once they worked out the logistics of renting the space at Salvage Vanguard, they filled their September days with auditioning a cast and crew.

Two Beards Theatre Company directors and co-producers, Robinson and Henry, have worked together since attending Westview Middle School and John B. Connally High School in Northwest Austin.

Henry, who is a year older than Robinson, was enrolled in seventh grade when Robinson started sixth grade at Westview.

They starred in a Saturday Night Live television spoof, a variety show called “Tuesday Night Live,” in middle school.

“I actually had the lead role in that. I played Dunstan Darkstorm, a super villain guy,” Henry said.

And Robinson played one of the love interests, a young hillbilly character whose girlfriend’s parents didn’t like him.

“I went after your girlfriend in the play and I tied her to the train tracks,” Henry said. “That was our big break – that’s when we KNEW.”

In high school, their theater director inspired them. Patricia MacMullen started teaching theater during Robinson’s freshman year, also Henry’s sophomore year.

Their first production together at Connally was a play by Michael Frayn, Noises Off. Robinson served as an understudy and Henry worked as a stage technician for that show.

“We had a massive two-story set that actually had to spin at one point in the show; my job was to move that big thing around,” Henry said.

Robinson attended rehearsals and absorbed the role as understudy for one of the characters in the play.

“Then we did Grease together as well. That was the next show and we were both in that production,” Robinson said. “We were both singing and dancing. I played an unnamed student and he was ‘T-bird number two.’”

In that production of Grease, the two acknowledged the excitement they felt about being part of a theatre troupe.

“We had a moment when ‘Danny’ sang his song about summer love; he and I walked up together on stage. There’s videotape of it somewhere – hopefully not on the Internet,” Robinson said.

MacMullen currently serves as the theatre director for the upper school at Hill Country Christian School, and instructor of high school advanced theatre, theatre productions, and Masterworks of Theatre.  She also teaches middle school theatre arts and introduction to theatre.

MacMullen taught Henry and Robinson and three other former students who also serve as cast members. They include Audra Uresti, who plays the character “tuxedo woman,” David Nguyen, who plays “Mr. Marmalade,” and Johnny Bender, who plays “Larry,” Lucy’s love interest.

“As a high school theatre director, if you are really blessed, you come upon a group of remarkable young people that happen to all gravitate to your program at the same time.  This group exemplifies that blessing. Working with them was a dream.  They were highly motivated, intelligent, talented, hard working, and focused,” MacMullen said.

She said that the first year Connally did not have a technical director in its theatre department, so Henry quickly filled those shoes.

“He was my rock.  He focused and programed lights, worked sound, built sets, etc. And then, I asked him to act — and he could!  What an amazing young man,” MacMullen said.

She said that Robinson possesses a profound work ethic.

“Andrew is one of the hardest working actors I know.  He ‘got it’ when I gave him direction the first time.  I knew he would one day be an amazing director because it was instinctive.  He had an innate sense of composition, motivation, and concept,” she said.

While in high school together, Henry, Robinson, Uresti, Nguyen, and Bender competed in the one act category at the University Interscholastic League (UIL) state championships three years in a row, winning third in the state in 2007.

That same year, the five also performed on the main stage at both the Texas Thespian Festival and the International Thespian Festival.

“They were just an amazing group of students and now, they’re an amazing group of young artists.  I absolutely adore them and wish them much success. I’m so proud of them,” MacMullen said.

When Henry graduated Connally in 2007, MacMullen advised him to look at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. The following year, when Robinson graduated, both Henry and MacMullen influenced his college decision as well.

Today Jacob teaches technical theater to three level one classes and one advanced class at Connally. He also manages the performing arts center and manages the maintenance and finances for the building.  After school he provides technical instruction to students and helps them to find jobs in private sector theater productions.

He feels that he is paying forward MacMullen’s influence.

“Everyone should pay if forward. I believe in something that I am passionate about. I never forget where I come from and that’s why I’m here at Connally. I wanted to give these kids a good education and something that I’m passionate about. I find that very thrilling,” he said.

Henry did not receive a teaching degree at A&M, but chose an alternative path to pursuing a career in education. He received a bachelor of art degree in theater in 2011 with a focus on tech and design and then quickly moved to Florida to work at Disney World. He obtained his teaching certification in 2012 through an alternative program offered through Texas Education Agency (TEA) after MacMullen called him home.

“I got a job at Disney out in Florida. I was doing tech work for them – lighting and pyrotechnics – that sort of stuff. Then I got a call from Ms. MacMullen and she said ‘hey, do you want to teach?’ I said ‘well, wait – where?’ Then she said ‘Connally,’ and I said ‘All right.’ I came back and I haven’t regretted it since.”

Meanwhile, Robinson finished up his senior year at A&M in Corpus Christi in 2012.

“Once I graduated, I moved back to Austin with strong intentions to move to Los Angeles or Chicago,” Robinson said.

Nguyen spiked Robinson’s interest in searching for theater work with him on the West Coast.

“Slowly, it just wasn’t working. Doors were kind of closing on us. So my mom could tell that I wasn’t very happy, because I wasn’t auditioning, I was just kind of working,  trying to raise enough money so I could move. Then, I went to a mass audition call and got some good feedback there and that led me to start auditioning in Austin,” Robinson said.

He signed with a local talent agency, then started auditioning for film work, but soon realized theater is his passion.

He worked with “The Story Wranglers” — Paramount Theater’s non-profit educational outreach program. He also worked with Punchkin Repertory Theater and did a show at Salvage Vanguard Theatre called Gods and Idols for Frontera Fest.

Meanwhile, Robinson and Henry never stopped talking about creating their own projects and starting their own troupe.

The two widened their circle of friends to include local theater actors and crew members, as well as directors who put them in touch with still more peers with similar interests.

“While talking about starting our own troupe, we kept saying how many talented people we know. It’s just amazing. We know so many great actors, great technicians – we worked with some of the best in high school and in college and after college,” Robinson said.

Some of their connections spanned several states, including Ludwig who shipped Two Beards all of the costumes that she designed for the show.

They cast the show, built the props, furnished the set, and came up with the equipment needed to technically manage it – all within a span of 30 days.

They said the key to their success has been an underlying passion they share for theater.

“And we were trained very well. It comes from our education and directors who taught us how theatre should run and so we hold it now within ourselves to manage our time very wisely and to make sure that we are using these people’s time wisely as well,” Robinson said.

“I know how it is to be an actor and have to work three different jobs, then come to rehearsals and stay until 10:30 p.m. You get tired, so I wanted to make sure that this process was convenient for them and fun and rewarding.”

The Salvage Vanguard has more than a little history behind it. Salvage has gone through several different management changes and provides a variety of different types of performances — everything from standup shows to performance art in addition to theater.

The hip neighborhood in East Austin attracts people off the streets as well. The two had hoped to attract a bit of the Austin City Limits crowd and out-of-towners during the first two weekends in October.

Robinson supplements his income by working two day jobs. He works for Kids Acting, an Austin program that has been around for 30 years. He participated in the same program when he was a child. Now he teaches 12 children in “a triple threat” class – with singing, dancing and acting – giving them a taste of the three core elements of a Broadway musical — in a production of Peter Pan.  His youngest student is five and the oldest is ten years old; the class meets Mondays from 4:15 until 5:45 p.m.

“I was in that same program when I was six. We have videotape of it. I was in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dogs and I was the Unicorn Prince,” Robinson said. “All I remember about it was — I knew all my lines and everyone else’s.”

He continues to work for Paramount Theater ‘s non-profit organization, “Story Wranglers.” He helps third graders to learn creative writing skills. He teaches one class on Wednesdays and two on Thursday mornings; each class lasts about an hour and a half with about 20 students respectively.

Highland Park Elementary partners with the Paramount Theater. Some of the financial support comes from the local community itself and other funds are provided through state and federal grants. Robinson along and the other teachers bring with them all of the writing materials and any brainstorming items needed.

The teachers offer students a typical story spine and vocabulary that begins with “once upon a time” and the children then add a character and a setting. The children fill in the blanks: “what a character wanted” and also add a conflict statement such as “something happened…” and a resolution statement that begins “ever since that day…” Sometimes, the results of the workshops take on all of the interesting improv elements of an AT&T television commercial.

“There are lots of very different, very creative ideas – that’s for sure. Very ‘out there’ thinking, which is fun. The kids get very creative,” he said.

Admittedly, it’s exactly that type of thinking that may have instilled in Robinson at an early age and later led to his choice of Mr. Marmalade as the first Austin production for Two Beards Theatre Company.

Cast of Mr. Marmalade

Lucy – Cassadie Petersen
Mr. Marmalade – David Nguyen Larry – Johnny Bender Bradley – Ronnie Williams Emily – Kristi Brawner Sookie/Sunflower – Adriane Shown George/Cactus/Man – Tim Stiefler Tuxedo Woman – Audra Uresti Tuxedo Man – Gino Sandoval

Production Staff

Stage Manager: Chanel Kemp Assistant Stage Manager: Dani Stetka Production Assistant: Sam Levine Lighting Design: Dylan Rocamora Costume Design: Kathleen Ludwig Makeup Design: Shea Lollar Makeup Assistant: Micaela Ramacciotti Props Design: Andrew Robinson Set and Sound Design: Jacob Henry Publicity Design: Drew Johnson

Technical Director: Jacob Henry Director: Andrew Robinson

Published 10-16-2013 online by Austin Fusion magazine


Biscuit Brothers to open ‘Fine Arts Farm’ this month

3 Oct


Preschool age children will soon have a place in Oak Hill to sing, dance, act, and create arts and crafts in the new Fine Arts Farm designed by one of the Emmy Award-winning stars of The Biscuit Brothers television show.

Jerome “Dusty Biscuit” Schoolar said he anticipates a “soft” opening for the Biscuit Brothers Fine Arts Farm sometime in October at 6036 West US HWY 290. Meanwhile,  tuition costs have yet to be decided.

Schoolar took the project on personally by renovating the building space he leased in June – performing most of the work himself. He completely gutted the inside of the site so that it no longer resembles the building that once served as a liquor store and before that a church. Meanwhile, snags in development have occurred while he awaited City of Austin inspections on contracted professional electrical and plumbing work.

The Biscuit Brothers virtual community through donations has funded a big part of the costs to get the Fine Arts Farm up and running, but Schoolar chose Oak Hill as the home of his facility because he lives here. Also, all three of his children have attended schools in the area including: Mills Elementary, Clint Small Middle School, and James Bowie High School. He said he saw a need for a children’s fine arts facility in the area.

The permanent building will be a first for the Biscuit Brothers, who for the past 13 years have produced high-energy children’s television shows while borrowing Pioneer Farms’ facilities. Indoors, things will look very familiar to fans of the show – in keeping with a barnyard theme complete with gingham curtains, rustic wood, and country bumpkin costumes.

“They’re going to see Dusty Biscuit here every day,” Schoolar said. “They’ll see the ‘Big Book of Music.’ They’ll see all of the things they see on the TV show here.”

The Biscuit Brothers’ show is reminiscent of such early children’s television programing as Howdy Doody, the Shari Lewis Show, and Captain Kangaroo of the 1950s and 60s, and it has been compared to a rural Sesame Street today.

Dusty Biscuit and his sidekick, Buford Biscuit, dressed in blue jean coveralls, plaid flannel shirts, straw hats and boots create a visual representation of a simpler, pared down slice of wholesome American country life.

“We made a very distinct effort to try to accomplish that. There’s no ‘wink-wink,’ no innuendos. It’s humor for all,” Schoolar said. “We absolutely try to be as wholesome and as genuine and as honest as we can.”

Schoolar has served as producer of the TV show while performing alongside of its musical director, Allen Robertson “Buford Biscuit;” with appearances by Jill Leberknight, “Buttermilk Biscuit;” and writer/director/puppeteer Damon Brown “Tiny Scarecrow;” as well as Ian Scott as “Old MacDonald.”

The Biscuit Brothers’ nationally recognized cast has made hundreds of live performances at venues statewide while prerecording their programs since 2005 to feature voiceovers by famous local musicians such as Willie Nelson and others.

Their half-hour syndicated show airs on PBS station affiliates nationwide, including Austin’s own KLRU every Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. The Biscuit Brothers have filmed primarily at Austin’s Pioneer Farm and features a mixture of live action singing and theater productions, puppetry, and animation graphics.

Every episode has a theme and a storyline, with a musical element that runs as a thread connecting all its featured segments.

“Like we might take ‘harmony.’ Of course musical harmony involves two people singing or playing different notes and creating the sonic sensation of harmony with chords. Well also, we show an episode where Buford and Dusty had to accomplish a goal in harmony – as to work together for an ultimate goal,” Schoolar said.

Within each of the televised episodes the Biscuit Brothers also feature “the Instrument of the Day,” as professional musicians explain their instruments – everything from clarinets to dobros to sitars. They also feature “Crazy Classics;” the Biscuit Brothers take a sheet of classic music and put a zany spin on it.

“The latter harkens back to our youth; we grew up at least listening to the classics through the cartoons – with Bugs Bunny and all of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes, because those were their sound tracks,” Schoolar said.

“Well, nowadays they (today’s cartoons) don’t offer a lot of that. So we want to make sure that in each episode of our show that we have some bit of classical music that kids can listen to. As they’re growing up, we want them to go – ‘Wait, I know that song.’”

From 1930 through the 1960s, Warner Brothers offered its classic soundtracks in both its Merrie Melodies and its Looney Tunes cartoons featuring the characters: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, Taz the Tazmanian Devil, and Marvin the Martian.

“Bugs Bunny toured. They did a Bugs on Broadway tour just playing classical music,  but that is something rarely done now. So we try to give a little bit of that style of presentation to the children,” he said.

“We show the connection between music and the life around you. For example, we might use the word ‘conducting.’ You need a conductor to keep all of the elements in place within an orchestra. You also have to conduct yourself to work well with others.”

The Biscuit Brothers hope to extend children’s interests beyond their elementary years, well into their secondary school careers as part of what Schoolar likes to refer to as “my bubble theory.”

“It’s all about that bubble. At least here in Austin, there’s that one spring evening for  your fifth grader going into middle school. Your student comes home and he or she has to bubble in his or her choice sheet for the next fall semester. I hope that because they explored fine arts as children here, they will give one bubble to the fine arts in middle school,” he said.

“Then hopefully, they’ll explore the fine arts in high school. I hope that someone in high school bubbles in orchestra or band. I hope someone bubbles in choir. For some of them, hopefully we’ll make the difference.”

The interior lobby of the fine arts farm will feature an airy lobby and a central reception desk.  Each of three classroom areas will feature a window or glass partition for adults to peak inside to view children’s activities.

One classroom will feature a mini stage area, complete with ceiling floodlights and varnished wood paneling along the interior walls and on the floors.

“I don’t plan to make the next American Idol singer or the next Broadway star or Academy Award winner,” Schoolar said. “I just want kids to enjoy the arts in a way that maybe they’ll continue it in some shape or form throughout their lives. Maybe they will continue the relationship with their families at home or with the city theater, or whatever.”

The largest majority of younger children who enroll in the Fine Arts Farm classes will be pre-school age, but the facility promises something for everyone – young and old, he said.

“If we can start them real early enjoying the arts, then they will follow through in elementary school, hopefully,” Schoolar said. “Fortunately the (TV) show is based around music — and music of course just gives us a huge broad range. We have all ages who enjoy the show.  That’s why this facility will be for all ages, but I have a feeling that the majority of kids who come here will be within the ages of preschool up to maybe second grade.”

One other classroom will feature an arts and crafts area and still another will provide a separate dance studio.

Schoolar said he hasn’t decided yet whether any of the future Biscuit Brothers TV shows will be filmed on the site.

“How much we plan to dress up the back has yet to be determined. We have camera angle issues. At Pioneer Farm you can move the camera around and you still just see the farm, but here if you turn the camera, you’ll see the YMCA (next door,)” he said.

However, Schoolar plans to develop the back yard area behind the Fine Arts Farm.

Children will be able to “shake their sillies out” in three outside areas yet to be developed: “Melody Gardens,” the “Canvas Corral,” and the “Actors Acre.”

“Melody Gardens,” will feature a series of little paths with bushes and trees decorated with instruments hanging in them for children to explore hands-on.

“There will be tubas coming out of the ground, or a piccolo tree,” Schoolar said. “Kids will be able to go and touch instruments. It will be much like the Austin Symphony every year provides at Symphony Square for kids, where they have the instruments hanging from the trees. It will be very much like that.”

Schoolar said whenever he and the other Biscuit Brothers cast members perform at music festivals, they provide a similar “instrument petting zoo” – for children to explore music by touch, or by playing it.

“It’s a place where kids can actually hold a flute, or hold a trombone. They don’t have to bring their own,” Schoolar said. “If they want to bring their own, they’re more than welcome to, but they don’t have to. There will be plenty of things for them to explore here.”

“Canvas Corral,” will resemble a horse corral, but will feature big slabs of cement with ornate frames around them on the ground and buckets filled with colored chalk that  children will use to draw pictures.

“Actors Acre,” will feature a little amphitheater for the children’s outdoor concerts and theatrical performances.

City code restricts the arts farm’s capacity to 30 students inside the facility at the same time. Schoolar hopes to provide a ten-to-one teacher ratio daily: with ten students enrolled in music, ten students in art class and ten students in a movement/dance class, each led by separate teachers.

“We’ll rotate the children around (in the different classrooms and areas) to keep it lively,” Schoolar said. “I have a lot of great professionals who want to work here. I’m going to let them come to me and say ‘this is what I would like to do.’ If there is interest in that class, then I’ll let that determine what a class will be about. Classes will be determined by which teachers I hire and what they are truly passionate about – whether it’s music, or movement, or theater arts.”

Schoolar said he envisions the art studio as a place where students “can get messy and play.”

He envisions scheduling the children in eight-week fine arts sessions. Children may sign up for a class, for example, every Tuesday and Thursday for one hour each time. They may sign up for any one of the art, dance, theater, or music sessions. He hopes to squeeze in two eight-week sessions into his calendar before Austin public and private schools break for the winter holidays.

Schoolar said he hopes to offer an all-day holiday camp at the end of December through January at the Fine Arts Farm as well. Next semester, he hopes to schedule two separate eight-week sessions beginning in January, followed by summer camps starting in June.

“We know that parents need somewhere to take their kids when school’s not in session,” he said. “So we will provide them a safe place to go, but where they’re getting so much more than just to sit here and watch Finding Nemo (on DVD.)”

Additionally, Schoolar said the facility may meet the needs of Oak Hill families who home school their children.

“Austin has a lot of home schooled kids and they’re organized. Hopefully I can provide fine arts for them,” Schoolar said.

He said because the facility serves children, there will be only one entrance inside or out.

“There will be a receptionist at the entrance at all times to welcome the kids and their parents and she’ll make sure that they leave with the same adult that they came with,” Schoolar said.

Before starting the Biscuit Brothers, Schoolar previously worked for the City of Austin as the fine arts coordinator for the parks and recreation department at Dougherty Arts Center. He helped to create summer camp classes at the center.

“That really got me interested in thinking that we really need another facility like that,” Schoolar said. “With the Biscuit Brothers, our show is pretty much about music education, but I want to have something where children can explore all the arts. They can explore theater, they can explore visual arts – dancing and music. They can have the opportunity to explore all of the elements. So that’s the hope here to have art classes, workshops, production, all sorts of seasonal events – all based around the arts.”

He also hopes to provide fine arts field trips offered at no expense to Title 1 schools, for those students living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and at risk of failing.

“I want to get the Title 1 students out here and let them explore by rotating them through all of the elements of the fine arts in an hour and a half setting, like a field trip. Then they can be a part of arts education. Of course they can get it in Title 1 schools, but you can never get enough,” he said.

Brown, “Tiny Scarecrow” writer/director of the Biscuit Brothers TV Show fame, said Austin needs the facility.

“I am really glad that Jerome has this opportunity. Having an arts facility like this for families is something we really need and it’s a project that is close to Jerome’s heart so I know he’ll put a lot of that heart into it! It’s a great extension of the work we founded with the Biscuit Brothers Live Concerts and TV show and it will be great to see the Biscuit Brand entertain and educate families in a different way through this Fine Arts Farm,” Brown said.

“I am all for more Arts Farming. Being an arts farmer myself — specializing in home-grown melodies and baby-baby grand pianos — I can say there’s nothin’ more rewarding than planting the seeds of creativity and watching artistic expressions grow. But why only ‘fine’ arts? I think all arts are ‘fantastic’ not just ‘fine!’ He should call it a Fantastic Arts Farm, IMHO — which stands for ‘in my hay-filled opinion.’”

Schoolar and Robertson met while working together on shows at Zachary Scott Theater in 2000. The concept for the Biscuit Brothers began as a spinoff from a special field trip program Scott Theater partnership offered with the public schools called “Ei Ei O.” They bused 300 students to the theater at a time to hear a performer sing farm songs, he said.

“Well, the guy who was going to sing farm songs had to bow out. I’m not sure if it was due to illness or some other commitment or what. Zachary Scott Theater folks called Allen (Robertson) in a panic saying ‘Can you come and sing some farm songs to some kids next week?” Schoolar said.

Robertson agreed, but he also enlisted Schoolar’s help.

“We thought maybe we could come up with something a little more than just singing some farm songs,” Schoolar said. “From that little nugget, we just started building. Ok, so we had to be farmers. Ok, so we thought: we’ll make it Old MacDonald’s farm and we’ll be his farmers.”

They created the name, the Biscuit Brothers, reminded of the nursery rhyme, “The Muffin Man.” They picked costumes that supported the farm theme.

“If they had called and said they wanted to do a show called ‘To the Moon,’ then we might have been astronauts. It really was just that lucky happenstance that we were there. They asked ‘Can you do this?’ and we said ‘yes,’ and then we did. From there that seed just kept growing.”

published in The Oak Hill Gazette 10-3-13

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