Leah Oppenheimer | CMEE photo
Leah Oppenheimer | CMEE photo

Bearing Witness to Leah Oppenheimer’s Magic at CMEE

by Dave Davis

Though it’s not always convenient to the general public for such an incredibly cool place for kids to be closed one day a week for most of the year, it’s truly a blessing for some others who’ve enrolled in one of the many programs offered to the local Latino community by the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE), under the tutelage of the museum’s Outreach Director, Leah Oppenheimer, or “Miss Lía” as she’s more affectionately known.

Personally, as a preschool instructor for the Head Start program (based at CMEE for the past 8 years), I bear witness to the magic that transcends the place, each and every Tuesday. Miss Lia’s magic make her a perfect subject for this quarter’s Season of the Sol spotlight.

Starting at 9:30 sharp, Leah kicks off the day by forming a large circle of moms and their littlest of tots for a session of Cantemos (translated as We Sing Together), and is leading them in unison with a hearty rendition of Hello Everybody, it’s so nice to see you!

One by one, each parent and child introduces themselves to the group by inserting their name, as the song progresses. What better way can a young family start their day than to feel welcomed and included among new-found friends?

“It’s not by accident that we’re starting at such a young age,” Leah points out. “There’s a direct link and carry-over from music to language acquisition, and you don’t have to be bilingual to enjoy it.”

Leah is a former social worker from Chicago now residing in Sag Harbor, who approached CMEE Executive Director Steve Long back in 2008 with a programming offer he couldn’t refuse.

She saw the need for reaching out to those in the surrounding Latino immigrant community who appeared to have difficulty assimilating into a new culture, in addition to the language barrier and cost-prohibitive fees that are often associated with various local facilities and the services they provide.

“If you have the space, I’ll do it for nothing!” was her original plea, and from there, the nationally-syndicated program Music Together™ was brought on-board. With some assistance from local clergy, word spread rapidly, as congregants of The Most Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton, among others, were the first to take part in its launch.

Building upon the success and positive response from those first music-related gatherings, Mr. Long asked Leah what additional programs could be offered moving forward. She decided to take that question to the families. This concept alone was groundbreaking, not only for the museum’s management team, but for those adults and children, who sensed a degree of empowerment via their input with the planning process.“I’ve been incredibly impressed with Leah’s ability to connect, especially reaching out to those deeply rooted in the Spanish-speaking community,” said Mr. Long recently.

Leah joined forces with Barbara Blaisdell, a retired elementary school teacher, to develop content that would “layer” various components, such as art, literature, and history upon one another, in an effort to enhance its richness.

What emerged was the desire to academically foster an increased knowledge of science and mathematics, utilizing fun, family-based after-school activities, including Ciencia or Science, with its multi-week subjects that over the years have ranged from the interior human body (offered to those children between 1st and 5th grades) and a newly-formed mentor class for pre-teens, embracing the lofty topics of the universe and astronomy.

Each program provides students an opportunity to explore concepts and ideas in a comfortable setting, without the pressure of standardized testing and rote memorization often associated with school-based curricula. The program has become so noteworthy and successful among its peers that NASA has recently granted the group “beta-testing status” for one of its upcoming projects. How amazing is that!

En route on a CMEE trip
En route on a CMEE trip

In her Matemáchicas class (literally, math for girls), Leah has tapped Laura Westhoff, a teacher at the Pierson Middle School, to instruct weekly sessions with 5th and 6th graders.

Leah stressed the need for empowering more young women in the field of mathematics; a topic that has been discussed ad infinitum in media and academia alike.

The National Science Foundation has recently funded a grant for a study being conducted by Dr. Anahu Guzman, Director of the Math Center at LIM College in Manhattan, on the influence of this particular 10-week after-school course on the young Latina women taking part.

Leah also has an on-going desire to bring more books into the homes of Latino families by providing a mobile library, situated front and center in the museum’s roomy entranceway each Tuesday morning.

“It’s hard to turn down a colorful book about planets and space when it literally jumps out at you,” she quipped.

“Ultimately, we, as educators and those persons of means, have an obligation to make things available to all members of our community – and what better place to make that happen,” she added.

The museum also introduced dozens of young Latino children to the arts this past summer by holding two one-week sessions of Campamento de Teatro or Theatre Camp. One of the many byproducts of the program was a performance, both written and staged by the participants, that they hoped would begin to reduce some of the stereotypes that have existed between residents and their perception of the local Latino population.

A lively and festive celebration of Latino culture takes place at the museum in mid-Spring at an event called CMEEferia.

Having experienced it first-hand on numerous occasions, it’s truly a gastronomic and cultural endeavor you won’t want to miss. Celebrating the food, music, and unique contributions from five Central/South American countries (typically those represented by the families participating in Miss Lía’s academic activities), the grounds of the museum transform into a vibrant rainbow of colors, smells, and rhythms; taking on an almost street festival-like atmosphere.

“I don’t do a thing!” Leah happily professes, when it comes to planning and executing the annual function. “From start to finish, it’s all about empowering the moms and kids by celebrating their heritage. Some have come from the most remote areas of the world, with literally nothing but a desire to start fresh.”

I couldn’t agree more, as I strive to do the same with the families of those preschoolers in my own classroom. And how lucky we are to be exposed to such unique cultural diversity, while simultaneously providing a path of inclusion (thanks to the likes of Leah and the folks at CMEE), for those among us who seek to fulfill the American dream.

If you wish to financially sustain the on-going success of the “mobile library,” or care to contribute by volunteering in any number of capacities; your efforts are more than welcome, and can be addressed via Leah’s email: leah@cmee.org.

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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