In the early years of the 20th century, long before Mohonk Consultations existed as a not-for-profit organization, the Mohonk Mountain House served as a site for high-level convocations of scientists, diplomats and other international luminaries and deep thinkers. Some of the talks that led to the formation of the Hague Tribunal and League of Nations even took place there. Since Mohonk Consultations (MC) was founded in 1980, the castlelike hotel atop the Shawangunk Ridge has played host to many a conference of experts on such topics as peacebuilding, sustainable energy, preserving land and watersheds, supporting farmworkers and resettling refugees.
Each year, MC confers a prestigious honor on some member of the mid-Hudson community – either an organization or an individual – who has “shown an extraordinary level of commitment in protecting the environment and in making the Hudson Valley more habitable, healthy and participatory.” Normally the ceremony celebrating the latest recipient of this annual Distinguished Achievement Award takes place inside the Mohonk Mountain House’s posh Victorian Parlor; but this past Sunday, September 19, the event took place in an open-air location to enable social distancing: the hotel’s Skating Pavilion.
As the sun sank over the Catskills and the “golden hour” beloved of hikers spread its glow over the interior of the rustic structure, the 2021 Mohonk Consultations Distinguished Achievement Award was presented to an organization that doesn’t quite fit the usual environmentalist profile of past recipients: the Center for Creative Education (CCE), based in Midtown Kingston. “We usually honor rural organizations; today, it’s a city organization,” noted Kitty Brown, who co-hosted the event with fellow MC board member Laura Headey. “CCE grows what we need the most: beautiful, strong, creative children.”
“I can think of no other group that’s more deserving,” agreed Kevin O’Connor, CEO of RUPCO. O’Connor told the tale of how CCE founder Evry Mann and current director Drew Andrews had come knocking on his door six years ago, in need of a larger headquarters to replace the one that CCE had outgrown due to high demand for classes. Their joint quest was the spark that led to RUPCO’s acquisition of a vacant former bowling alley on Cedar Street. The derelict structure was demolished and replaced with an innovative green mixed-use building called Energy Square, featuring 57 apartments on the upper floors and dedicating 10,000 square feet on the ground floor to CCE and the arts organization DRAW.
Ev Mann then told the origin story of CCE: how he had moved to the Hudson Valley, after having created an arts education program for homeless children in Seattle that became a national model, and founded the first incarnation of CCE in Stone Ridge in 1989. A percussionist by trade, he got involved in the PTO at Myers Elementary School in Kingston after discovering that his daughter was being offered minimal instruction in the arts, and spearheaded the creation of an afterschool program that brought in “dancers, painters and storytellers. Before I knew it, it had expanded to six schools.”
It was in 2000, not long after that he had relocated CCE to Kingston, that Mann interviewed a young applicant for a dance instructor position, Drew Andrews: “It was immediately apparent that he had talents beyond being a teacher,” Mann said. Andrews quickly became the artistic director and driving force behind the Energy Dance Company, eventually taking over as executive director upon Mann’s retirement.
“You’re giving us an award for something that we would do for free,” Andrews joked after accepting the certificate, which reads: “For ongoing service to empower students and to energize the community through arts, wellness and education, and for helping today’s youth develop into tomorrow’s leaders by ‘finding their possible.’”
Much of CCE’s diverse clientele consists of youth who reside in Kingston’s socioeconomically challenged Midtown neighborhood. Besides being home base to the Energy Dance Company and the Percussion Orchestra of Kingston (POOK), the organization is well-known for offering a broad array of high-quality, affordable classes in various forms of dance and music, fitness, theater, spoken word, computer arts technology and the visual arts. Recent additions to the menu include instruction in financial literacy, gaming and chess. During the COVID pandemic, CCE quickly adapted by helping students and families cope with school closings by offering a safe space, tutors, meals and access to high-speed Internet for learning.
The award ceremony in the Skating Pavilion, funded by Ulster Savings Bank, featured numerous speakers, including CCE staff, volunteers and grateful alumni. Assistant deputy county executive Anna Markowitz was also on hand, representing county executive Pat Ryan. The gala event wrapped up with a performance by seven young Energy dancers and a drum jam from past and present POOK members and instructors, followed by a barbecue reception.