‘Arts feed the soul’: Two La Jolla women work to boost arts education in schools

VAPA Foundation President Doreen Schonbrun says arts education makes a "profound difference" in children's well-being.
VAPA Foundation President Doreen Schonbrun says arts education makes a “profound difference” in children’s well-being.

For La Jollans Doreen Schonbrun and Phyllis Epstein, advocating for the arts in education isn’t a job, it’s a passion.

“We’re obnoxious about it,” Schonbrun said.

The two serve in the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Foundation, an organization that provides grants and resources to visual and performing arts students in the San Diego Unified School District.

Schonbrun, the foundation’s president, said that “as an art teacher and art therapist, I know the profound difference [art] can make in the well-being of children.” She has worked with children since high school and been involved with the VAPA Foundation since its inception since 2017 to help improve the quality of arts education and students’ access to it.

About “40 percent of the students in [SDUSD] come from low-income or poverty-level families,” Schonbrun said. “Many of these children don’t even have art materials, paper, crayons at home.”

VAPA Foundation board member Phyllis Epstein says "education is not complete without the arts."

Epstein said she joined the VAPA board in 2019 at Schonbrun’s behest and since has been involved in lobbying state legislators for funding for classroom arts and other foundation projects, like awarding grants to teachers for art education and materials in the classroom.

“I think education is not complete without the arts,” Epstein said. “The arts feed the soul.”

Epstein and Schonbrun planned a recent fundraiser during which new art supplies could be dropped off for distribution to SDUSD students. The fundraiser also “raised a fair amount of money so these children ... could have those materials to use,” Schonbrun said.

Though both women have a background in educating children as well as in service to local arts nonprofits, Schonbrun said “it’s the children that is the most passionate link between us.”

Schonbrun’s first job in high school was working with children in school. “I wanted children to feel whole,” she said. “[For] children who were less fortunate or who came from any kind of abuse or environments of neglect, I felt like I wanted to make them whole in some way. This whole path and my goal have come to fruition in VAPA.”

Schonbrun has served on many community boards, such as the San Diego Opera, and is currently on the board of the San Diego Center for Children, Sanford Burnham Prebys Fishman Fund and the VAPA Foundation. She has chaired several events for the San Diego Center for Children, Timken Museum, San Diego Museum of Art and the VAPA Foundation.

However, she said “the most fulfilling teaching that I did was with the San Diego Center for Children.” The center is a nonprofit that offers services to children “who have been abused or neglected or have severe behavioral problems,” Schonbrun said. “They come for academic learning and they come for excellent therapy.”

In providing art therapy classes to children at the center, Schonbrun was “able to see unbelievable changes in their moods with art. Art therapy is the best therapy for children because the kids feel safe and they can joyously express themselves.”

Epstein, who taught preschool in Los Angeles as well as second grade, said she loved that “we taught music, art of all kinds as part of the whole curriculum. You didn’t just do music for music’s sake.”

Epstein, a former member of the California Arts Council and current Education Committee chairwoman of the San Diego Symphony board, said she advocates so strongly for arts education because “there are so many studies done about how learning the arts helps in every way, not only mentally but also with schoolwork.”

Arts education “helps with attendance; kids want to come to school more when there are arts,” she said. “[Art] helps with development of the brain and is necessary to have a happy life. An appreciation [of art] lasts for a lifetime.”

Epstein and Schonbrun are busy working on the foundation’s Spotlight event scheduled for April 17. The event, delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, is designed as a fundraiser to showcase student talent onstage at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

The women are planning an in-person event but said it will be livestreamed from the Conrad if large gatherings are still prohibited.

“It’s fun and different. It’s all about the kids,” said Schonbrun, who described the students as “unbelievably talented.”

“I want the world to see the benefits of creating well-balanced children with good self-esteem,” she said.

“We depend on the community for support,” she added. “I hope that we have a very successful fundraiser. I hope that we are able to start bringing fine art programs to all students in all of our schools. I just feel, as Phyllis does, that art heals the soul, fuels the soul and lets us go on to be valuable people in the future.”

Epstein said the foundation also is looking for parents of SDUSD students to join the board.

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