Music, language, dirt ... and positive energy

Arts and language school opens in town

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By Maria Maxham

Rita Cassiano and Gingi Lahera hadn't even been in their new home, which is also their school, for a month when COVID-19 closures hit.

They'd purchased the house at 1037 Marengo Ave. in February, excited about the space which was perfect for A.L.M.A. (Arts Language Music Alliance), including a Montessori and Reggio-Emilia based school, as well as adult and family language and music classes.

They'd only been able to hold a few lessons when everything shut down. Now, with the state tentatively in Phase 4, they're beginning to bring people into their space once more.

"We're opening the doors slowly and carefully," said Lahera.

Pre-Covid, when Cassiano saw the listing for the house on Marengo Avenue, she felt an instant connection to the home. She immediately said, "That's the school."

She and her partner Lahera had been teaching classes out of their condo in Oak Park but had been talking for over a decade about opening a school out of a bigger location. They weren't actively looking for a new location, though, when Cassiano happened to see the house listed on Zillow.

"I knew right away it was our school," said Cassiano, who's taught at Alcuin Montessori school for 17 years and served as the Spanish coordinator there for 11. But financially swinging it would be difficult. Still, they felt drawn to the location.

While figuring out finances and logistics were important, so was imagining them in the place that seemed to call them.

Cassiano created a vision board, with photos of their students and the house, something physical to look at to help focus their energy on the home they wanted, for themselves and their students. ("This belongs to the community," said Cassiano at one point, gesturing around the space.)

Cassiano talks passionately about visualization and the law of attraction. "You have it here," she says, hand on chest. "You have it here," she adds, gesturing in the space in front of her. Visualization of what you desire has to be something you practice regularly.

"The universe brought you here to succeed," says Cassiano, which is at the basis of the law of attraction, the driving force behind the energy you put out drawing to you the things you need.

When they found out that the house had, from 1928 to 1959, been a school, it seemed even more like fate, like the house was meant to be, once again, a school.

Quickly selling a condo in Oak Park and with the help of family and friends, the couple purchased the home and immediately began transforming it into the school of their dreams.

It already had a huge open kitchen area, perfect for the combined language and cooking classes Cassiano plans to host, where guests can dabble in Portuguese while learning simple recipes they can recreate at home easily.

The classes can be customized: vegetarian or vegan friendly options are available. And they'll be available for kids or adults.

"I teach the classes in Portuguese," said Cassiano. "But even if you have no experience in the language, you will understand. Language isn't just words; it's expressions and inflections." She gestured to her mask. "The masks make facial expressions harder to see. But the eyes express a lot too."

A huge, toothy grin was printed on Cassiano's mask. Lahera said it's an actual reproduction, although enlarged, of Cassiano's mouth. They laughed about the teeth being too big, and Cassiano's laugh and personality were contagious.

It was that personality – and her singing voice – that brought Joe Farwell into her life. He is a musician who'd grown up with parents trained at Chicago's Hull House, whose passion for the music scene was instrumental in helping Cassiano and Lahera start ALMA. "He's my American dad," said Cassiano.

Farwell was born in Chicago and moved to Oak Park as a young child. His parents, Ralph Farwell and Eleanor Carroll Farwell, met at Hull House; Ralph played drums in a dance band, and Eleanor studied concert piano.

As a child, Joseph visited Hull House regularly and performed in holiday events there. He became inspired to take up the trumpet. When he graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, he joined the Chicago Musicians Union, becoming a band leader and playing in the first-ever jazz concert in Oak Park.

A musician friend introduced him to Cassiano, and he was quickly impressed by her Brazilian singing and her positive energy. A few years later, he met Lahera, a professional singer in the Chicago area, and he introduced them. Their relationship grew, eventually into a marriage, and their musical collaboration and creative energy inspired Farwell, reminding him of experiences he had as a child at Hull House. He helped them establish the Carroll-Farwell Institute and ALMA.

This week, the couple is beginning their first week of summer camp for kids, divided into two age groups: 3 through 6, and 7 through 11. The first week of camp will be themed around the Brazilian Fest Junina, the annual celebration in June when the harvest is ready.

Cassiano and Lahera said they plan to spend a lot of time outdoors with the campers; their property features a large front yard and an expansive and covered front deck where, said Lahera, the children can play even if it's raining.

"We live in a neighborhood with lots of big trees, but essentially it's still a concrete jungle," said Lahera, which inspired her and Cassiano to create an outdoor space for kids to play. Kids who come to ALMA for camp? "They're going to get dirty," said Lahera, who mentioned research that shows microbes in the dirt can actually enter your system and make you happy.

Campers will be exposed to language as well, though the main language spoken will be English.

"We think of it as a 'culture camp,'" said Lahera, adding that they want to follow the interests of the families. One family, for example, asked if they could do a week focused on Native Americans. Another family was interested in Cuba. "Within reason, we try to focus on what the families want."

Social emotional learning is a big part of the Montessori and Reggio-Emilia based camp too.

"Grace and courtesy are huge," said Lahera, who said they work with the children to understand how to interpret others' body language, voice fluctuations, facial expressions to see how peers are feeling.

Non-violent communication is a big part of what Lahera and Cassiano teach. "It's OK to be angry," said Lahera. But how you express that anger and work through it is important.

"Little tiny children can learn conflict resolution with peace and dignity and grace," Lahera said.

The children's school is downstairs, in a big open space with wooden shelves and manipulatives for kids to play with. There are lots of windows and plants. In one corner is a raised area, set up at the time for musical performances. But performances of all kinds, say Lahera and Cassiano, are important for the kids. And it's also used for the Family Band program Lahera and Cassiano run, an opportunity for families, with or without musical experience, to learn how to play music together.

Cassiano and Lahera are looking forward to slowly opening up their space to more people and more classes. Setbacks happen – they had some minor flooding recently – but they believe their energy is meant to be put into the school and the community.

And, says Cassiano, embracing the moment is important.

"You have to live today. Tomorrow doesn't exist."

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