The Operation Round Up grants provided by KREMC’s opted-in members have influenced many Kosciusko County area nonprofits over the years. One of the Operation Round Up grantees from 2021-2022 was the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, widely known for its musical theater performances. In this Q&A, Development Director Elisa Wise explains how the grant supported youth education programs in a way that will be building the Wagon Wheel legacy for many years to come.

Learn how to contribute to Operation Round Up.

KREMC Interviewer: Your Operation Round Up grant supported the purchase of two keyboards for the Wagon Wheel. Can you tell me about the need for these keyboards and the influence they’ve had?

Elisa Wise: We’ve always tried to tailor our Operation Round Up grants toward our education programs, which are our fastest-growing and most underfunded programs. They don’t have the resources of ticket sales to support them as our other programs do. When you need a new piece of equipment that’s not in your budget, it’s such a blessing to have a grant to pay for it. We received the KREMC grant and a Kosciusko Endowment Youth Services grant, which together afforded us two new keyboards and their equipment, including speakers and all their hookups. We had some keyboards before, but their software was so outdated that we couldn’t do any real, necessary programming for today’s day and age.

For our professional shows, we have around 13 orchestra members, which is not a full orchestra, so we have to transpose and change a lot of things. With Sound of Music, we had a musician get sick and couldn’t perform, and we had a packed week of 836 kids every day for seven days coming to see a field trip performance. What do you do when your violin goes under? You have an incomplete orchestra! So, we were able to transpose and record violin pieces on our new keyboards one day before we performed. We had the sound we needed for the actors, so they didn’t have to relearn queues. It was very timely that we had those keyboards.

On a regular basis, the keyboards are providing students with individualized learning opportunities through voice lessons from Wagon Wheel Voice Instructor Thomas Hall. Another beauty of this new software is that Thomas can transpose right then and there into the key that the student needs. This gives them confidence and the ability to learn whatever they need to prepare, whether it’s for auditions for school productions, auditions for our programs, or practicing their sight reading and music reading.

The keyboards have allowed us to enhance our programming and to adapt very quickly when we need to. It’s been such a blessing.

KREMC Interviewer: How does the Wagon Wheel serve the youth in Kosciusko County with its programs?

EW: We offer a variety of educational programs, like one-on-one lessons, larger classes, and intensive summer workshops. Most of the time, the kids are learning about diction and reading. Reading is a heavy focus in theater because you have to know your script. It’s a really great opportunity for students to engage in a reading skill that they don’t usually get in the summer. It’s been amazing to see those kids grow and learn!

In the summer, the kids in the program get to watch the rehearsals and performances of the professionals, which is a fun learning opportunity. The summer programs range from second grade to high school, and they happen from June through August.

We do short workshops in the fall and intensive classes in the winter and spring. In fact, we kick off our 2023 Winter/Spring class schedule on February 14, 2023. We are excited to expand our class offerings to include classes in musical theatre dance, tap for beginners, and a new Triple Threat Workshop that combines all three core areas of Musical Theatre (acting, dance, and voice). The expansion of the Conservatory to include dance programming is thanks to a grant from the Dekko Foundation. I’ve taken the adult class, and it’s a blast – I highly recommend it!

KREMC Interviewer: How are your services unique in the community, and how do you partner with other organizations through these programs?

EW: If kids are invested in this type of art form, Wagon Wheel is the only option they have in the area. All our programs in the Conservatory help kids iron their skills and sharpen them up, so they feel comfortable and confident and know how “theater in the round” works.

We are very passionate about working with Kosciusko schools to help enhance their programming – Warsaw’s dance program is growing, and they have a great new dance teacher. It’s exciting to work with them and collaborate as our team grows and the schools’ programs grow.

Our Conservatory also partners with Symphony of the Lakes, which is the professional symphony here in Kosciusko County. They are offering master classes and a scholarship competition for youth.

Our service to our families is to try to keep costs reasonable, give scholarships where we can, and give students free lessons if we’re able. That’s where grants come in. The grants and individual donors are going to help this program grow beyond our wildest dreams to meet the needs of our kids.

KREMC Interviewer: Kosciusko REMC is member-owned and community-driven. How does the Wagon Wheel resonate with these values?

EW: Community mindset is first and foremost. Our mission is to provide performing arts that create community unity, educational opportunity, and economic growth. Our focus is local. But it branches out so that we create ripples in Kosciusko County. And that’s what KREMC does through Operation Round Up. It’s creating ripple effects that impact an individual, that impact a neighborhood, that impact a community, that impact our entire county. That’s what the Wagon Wheel does – we’re centrally located in Warsaw, but we have people all over Kosciusko County that come and participate in our programs.

Especially in a rural community, it’s so critical to support each other. That’s what KREMC is doing by getting internet to the rural community. We are so disserviced as a rural entity because we don’t have the resources available to larger cities. But swe have something else. We have strength in numbers. It’s not about division, it’s about being united and saying, “How do we address the needs we have as a community?”

That’s exactly what the Wagon Wheel desires to do – it’s not just about putting up beautiful shows, it’s about providing a service to our community that matters. Part of that service is joy. We have so many blessings – let’s celebrate that together! Our community matters, and not just because they’re local, but because they’re talented and they deserve a little spotlight!

I know that education matters a lot to KREMC as well, and that’s the second part of our mission. Wagon Wheel’s programs are about impacting our youth so that they have the resources they need to grow into healthy individuals.

KREMC Interviewer: What is the community’s response to these programs, specifically with the quality that the new keyboards add to the experience?

EW: It’s amazing for the kids who experience the keyboards. A lot of times, the arts don’t often get nice, new things. At the Wagon Wheel, we work with what we’ve got. The students and parents responded with excitement. They saw that our community supports their kids so much that we got something new that we needed.

We call ourselves the extended family of the Wagon Wheel, and it has had an amazing impact on all of them to have further opportunities and growth in the programs because we’ve got the resources we need. The keyboards have been very positive and hugely impactful for our Wagon Wheel family.

At Wagon Wheel, we’ve recognized that the community knows who we are, but they don’t know how much we are serving and need to serve more. There are resources out there, and there is untapped potential in youth who need our services, so that’s where our focus is. We need to reach those children. We need to give them the opportunities and programs they need and want.

We conduct surveys after almost every youth program, and for the last four or five years, we keep getting feedback saying the community wants more dance programs and voice lessons. To do those things, you need the infrastructure to prepare the music for both of those opportunities. Getting the keyboards and the sound systems that support those keyboards gives us the opportunity to advance our voice, piano, and dance services. The nice thing about those sound systems that support the keyboards is that they’re also auxiliary, so you can plug in a phone and play music for a dance program. They’re very versatile.

KREMC Interviewer: How can the community support the Wagon Wheel best right now?

EW: Positive word of mouth is the number one thing – it’s free, and it’s easily done. The more our community brags about our community, the better. Tell your friends and family! Come visit Warsaw, visit Kosciusko County, and visit the Wagon Wheel.

Ticket sales cover about 60% of what we do, and donations are the next step. We have a history of over 50 years, but only 10 as a registered 501c3 nonprofit. When your money goes to the Wagon Wheel, you will know that it’s going toward a legacy. It’s not just going to kids we’re serving this year; it’s going to kids we’re going to serve 60 years from now.

That’s what touches my heartstrings the most! The reason I give to the Wagon Wheel is not because I know I’m making an impact today, but I’m impacting the future as well – not just the kids’ lives, not just for the individuals that come to our programs, but also the longevity of our theater. I’m not from here. There is nothing like this across the entire U.S. We have to preserve it.

If you want to get involved, we have 150+ volunteer ushers, and we’re always looking for more! From there, get into a program yourself, whether it’s going to a class or workshop, or auditioning for Community Theatre or Symphony of the Lakes.

Another way to support us is to come to the shows. Ignore your couch and go enjoy life! Enjoy what we have here in the theater. Don’t let it go to waste.

KREMC Interviewer: Tell me more about how performing arts affects the development of our community’s youth.

EW: It’s amazing how much math is involved in music. Music, art, and performance all heighten test scores, increase focus in the classroom, and give students what they need to succeed in a way that you don’t recognize when it’s not there.

The Search Institute, which is a national organization, did a huge research project over many years about what kids need to be successful. They discovered 40 attributes, from positive role models to economic opportunities to math and reading skills. The lowest score across the nation was having access to creative activities. Only 20% of kids said they have enough of that to warrant being successful.

In rural areas, we don’t have big, fancy theaters to go to. We are the performing arts center for almost our entire neighboring area. That educational opportunity matters to rural kids, too. We forget that there’s still something missing after food is on the table and the bills are paid. Those basic human needs aren’t what makes us human. Individuals need the arts just as much as they need sports. Or air. We need this to feel satisfied and be productive individuals.

KREMC Interviewer: Is there anything else you’d like KREMC members to know about the Wagon Wheel?

EW: I cannot say thank you enough to KREMC and the individuals who choose to round up. Pennies move mountains for this community, and generosity begets generosity. There is no greater joy than giving to someone else and seeing someone else impacted, strengthened, and encouraged because you donated. You may never see the individual impacted because of your donation to the Wagon Wheel, but there are hundreds of kids impacted daily by what we do at the Wagon Wheel.

The last part of our mission is economic growth – we want to see our community flourish. KREMC’s Operation Round Up is an amazing program because it adds up and makes a huge impact. You’re collectively doing something as a community for this community. It’s staying local, and if it’s impacting a kid, you know it’s impacting the future.

This community deserves the best we can offer. Our missions align – we’re about our community, youth education, and providing the best resources and growth to our neighbors. That’s where it matters. As a granting organization to the Wagon Wheel, KREMC and any other donors should know that they are the superpowers. They are the heroes of the Wagon Wheel.

This blog was originally posted by Kyrsten Newlon on the KREMC website.