Chester native, mother of famed actresses brings kids back to historic school
Far away from the Broadway stages and Hollywood studios sits a commanding three-story, brick building in Chester overlooking an open field.
A single stage sits between mature oak trees, lit with a stream of sunlight.
Two Broadway and television actresses and their mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, will set the stage this weekend for a summer of activities. The program will echo the poignant past of Brainerd Institute, which closed nearly eight decades ago.
The institute was founded in 1866, after the Civil war, to educate the children of freed slaves.
Ayers Allen, 94, is a Chester native and was in Brainerd's last graduating class -- in 1939. She's a noted author, poet and cultural activist. She's also mother to two famous daughters -- Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
Ayers Allen returned to Chester more than ten years ago after spending years in Texas. While she was away, she earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry, studied the Mayan culture in Mexico, and worked for NASA. During a space mission in the 1960s, astronauts read her poetry as images were shown of the flight, said her daughter Debbie Allen.
With the help of her famous daughters, Ayers Allen is bringing education back to Brainerd.
“My mother has done many different things,” said Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable in the sitcom "The Cosby Show."
“She returned home to Chester and is determined that her accomplishments were never just for herself alone, and is so open and willing in sharing them with people.”
The women will hold “Workshops in Open Fields” at Brainerd, June 4-28. The program’s kick-off “Dance Free Day” weekend with Debbie Allen starts June 2.
The initiative is a free children’s literacy program for preschoolers ages 4-6 and provides free lunches and snacks.
Ayers Allen has hired certified teachers for the classes and the kids will have hands-on activities in science, reading, storytelling and other areas, Ayers Allen said.
This is the program's second year in Chester. Last year’s line-up also included a doctor who brought in real bones for a health presentation, a game warden who gave out fishing rods, and visits from police officers.
“I was determined to start it with preschool literacy, and Brainerd was the ideal place with all of this land and sunlight, trees and pathways,” said Ayers Allen, who said she expects 30-40 children this year -- double last year’s attendance.
Being outdoors was part of growing up, Allen said.
“I remember when we were little, (Ayers Allen) would do something to the television to make it appear to be broken so we would go outside,” Allen said. “We would go outside in nature.”
Allen is an Emmy Award winner who is best known for her role in the 1980s hit television show “Fame,” and “West Side Story” on Broadway, which earned her a Tony Award. Allen started the weekend dance program at Brainerd through the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.
Ayers Allen started “Workshops in Open Fields” in Houston, Tex., in the 1970s through the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Houston had a lot of open fields and residential areas at that time and (Ayers Allen) saw children, just running around the city with nothing to do,” Rashad said. “She would bring artists together and they would create a vision of openness. They would teach in these open fields just doing what they do.”
The concept of outdoor learning is complimented by children’s love for recess, said Pete Stone, a Chester High School teacher and program volunteer.
“They didn’t feel like they were going to summer school,” Stone said about last year’s program. “Instead, they were going to be outside and enjoying the liberation of the outdoors and that freedom.”
The freedom to teach and learn in a way that feels natural to the teachers and children is what makes the program successful, Ayers Allen said.
“You remove every restraint like that and, oh do they come, and they are there every day,” she said.
Jannie Price-Woods said she wanted her inquisitive great grandson, 5-year-old King Gore, to have an enriching summer experience. She said attending the program last year “pulled out some of the talents he has within him.”
Ayers Allen said the program is a “real thrill” and helps prepare the kids for school.
“I know that Americans, nationally, have been lazy with preschool literacy and that’s unfair,” she said.
Brainerd's open campus is ideal for the program.
The 14-acre campus with its rolling hills and mature trees is the legacy of an institute that, as a segregated school, taught concert piano, literature, languages and the arts.
Rashad purchased the property in 1998. She rescued the one remaining building, Kumler Hall, a now 102-year-old former boys dormitory, from demolition.
“I think it’s gratifying for (Ayers Allen) that we would be passionate about this work and involve ourselves, bring out the best of who we are, what we know and what we have accomplished, in support of this effort to give to the children and the community of Chester County,” Rashad said.
Want to go?
Dance Free Day with the Debbie Allen Dance Academy will be 10 a.m.-3 p.m. June 2, and 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. June 3 at Brainerd Institute, 115 Marquis Street, Chester. Everyone ages four and up can participate. The dancers from the academy will teach ballet, jazz, tap, African and hip hop. There is no admission cost.
The Workshops in Open Fields preschool literacy program starts June 4 for ages 4-6. The hours will be 9 a.m. - noon Mondays through Thursdays until June 28 at Brainerd. There is no admission cost. Participants can attend each week or as needed. Register in person at Brainerd or contact Pete Stone, 803-899-4391.
Visit brainerdinstituteheritage.com for details.