Sunrise of Philadelphia and Fleisher hosts Day of the Dead celebration

Sunrise of Philadelphia and Fleisher hosts Day of the Dead

The activities aimed to express all layers of loss.

Through a partnership with Sunrise of Philadelphia and Fleisher Art Memorial, students of all ages from across South Philly celebrated Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at the historic art institution. The various activities, which weaved together Mexican literacy and arts, explored more than one layer of the loss of a loved one. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

During last week’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, families from across South Philly gathered at Fleisher Art Memorial to summon the spirits of loved ones — or at least, learn about a new culture.

Whether drafting a poem or crafting tissue-paper marigolds, the celebration was a special installment of the monthly “Our Stories” events, a partnered program with Fleisher and Sunrise of Philadelphia funded by the William Penn Foundation’s informal learning initiative.

Collaborating only a couple of years ago, the historic art institution and the South Philly-based after-school and summer services, reaches more than 200 students by weaving together art and literacy for preschool and elementary children. Through both “First Thursday” events, like this Día de los Muertos, and 10-week programs, families and children foster intergenerational lessons taught with both oral and visual traditions.

“Our Stories, while it’s about learning about art and literacy, the literacy aspect is also about learning about how to speak to your neighbor, really,” said Aja Beech, the arts integrated literacy coordinator for Sunrise of Philadelphia for the Fleisher partnership. “And I think, in these times, so many things are strained, especially within populations of people who have immigrated here.”

Sunrise of Philadelphia, which was founded almost 20 years ago when the city was experiencing a dearth of after-school and summer services for students in kindergarten to 12th grade, maintains educational, artistic, athletic, career-ready and several other programs in six South Philly public schools.

Gerard Silva, instructor at Fleisher (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Some of the schools, Beech says, are home to students who speak up to 17 different languages. Considering the influx of Asian, Hispanic and other immigrant populations in South Philly, Sunrise of Philadelphia has nurtured a new approach toward its mission surrounding family engagement.

“When you think about it,” Beech said. “When you have seven different languages in a classroom of 20 kids, there are some parents that just want to communicate to each other and kind of can’t, so that’s what we’re trying to do, too, here.”

A component of Fleisher’s fifth annual Day of the Dead celebration, one of the largest in the city, the event encompassed various art and literacy-based activities scattered at different stations.

Children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, made tissue-paper marigolds, as tradition says spirits are drawn to smells of the flower on Day of the Dead. Participants also assembled small sculptures of altars, filled out storyboards about lost loved ones and made skull masks templates complemented with a story about how they imagine the spirit world.

And at one table, children wrote poems about loved ones who aren’t with them for one reason or another — whether they’ve crossed over or are living in another country.

For Beech, who formerly worked at the City’s Victim Services Department, she felt it was necessary to weave this element of loss into the Day of the Dead celebration, as she incorporates several trauma services into Sunrise of Philadelphia, partnering with organizations such as Mothers Bonded by Grief and the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center.

Erika Guadalupe Núñez, manager of community programs at Fleisher. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

“I think a great thing we’ve been trying to do in this partnership that Aja has really pushed is doing the trauma-informed approach,” said Erika Guadalupe Núñez, manager of community programs at Fleisher. “Acknowledging that a lot of the communities that we work with, particularly the immigrant communities in South Philadelphia, have dealt with a lot of trauma in their life and past tragedies. And a lot of the times immigrants migrate is because they’re leaving something behind.”

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