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Retired social worker provides students with free training in the fine arts

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 19:54:28-04

CANTON, Ohio — Opportunity—that’s all some kids need to be able to explore their talents and shine.

In our quest to find people who are making our area A Better Land, we discovered a retired social worker from Stark County giving back to students in a big way. She’s making sure children are taught major lessons, no matter their economic background.

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This summer, nearly 100 kids in Canton are learning new skills. They’re immersed in the fine arts, part of the summer En-Rich-Ment program.

Thirteen-year-old Carmella Stokes is one of those students.

“I want to be on (American) Idol one day. Singer and a dancer,” said Carmella.

For a year now, she’s been focused on dance: from ballet and tap, to Hip-Hop and Jazz.

Carmella’s biggest fan is her mother, Vanessa Stokes. She watches the 8th grader’s every move during practices.

“They come together. They learn new things, and they’re chasing their dreams and their goals,” said Stokes.

Stokes brings her five children to the En-Rich-Ment program. It’s a program she believes in and is truly grateful for.

“I couldn’t as a mom give them their dreams or what they want, but with this place being here, I can bring them and don’t have to worry about cost,” says Vanessa.

At the age of 72, in the midst of her retirement, Betty Smith co-founded the En-Rich-Ment program back in 2012. She wanted to help underprivileged children in Stark County between the ages of 5 and 18, get the hands-on experience in the arts they often crave—for free.

“I felt God wanted me to do something different,” said Smith, who also serves as the program’s executive director.

In addition to all the music and dance classes, the former social worker oversees a community garden, cooking and art classes, and a popular drumline that often performs in the community.

“And it’s free? That's when the parents are blown away. You mean, my child can get a violin lesson, my child can play drums and you’re going to provide them with the instrument?” said Smith.

The City of Canton has provided grants to keep the program thriving, and Smith does her share of fundraising -- and for good reason.

“You know, I’ve had many of them say, ‘Ms. Betty, if I wasn’t here, I’d probably be in trouble. I’d probably be doing something I shouldn’t,” she said.

She makes sure to weave in those invaluable lessons on respect, etiquette, and confidence amid these classes.

“That’s why the nurturing and the love that we give is so important. We give them the skills that they need to survive,” said Smith.

Stokes said, “I’ve seen my children come out of their shell since they’ve been here. Gave them a little courage, too!

“Ms. Betty” as the kids call her, is a spry 81, and she says she has a deep love for what she does and no plans to retire.

“The kids keep me young! As long as God gives me the activity of my limbs and a sound mind, and the heart and the passion for the kids. I want to continue to do this until I’m 100 maybe! Who knows!” she said.

Those students are preparing to showcase all they learned later this month on July 22.

Smith says her program has outgrown its space over the years—and they’re looking to raise funds so they can find an even bigger building.

To learn more about the En-Rich-Ment program, which runs all year—click here.

This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.