A random, online connection has blossomed into an international program reaching hundreds of kids around the world, thanks largely to the efforts of an Easton native.
Michelle Zattoni ran cultural festivals for years in Allentown. She grew up in Easton but now lives in Bethlehem. Some African creations from the festival were featured on Instagram and caught the eye of a Nigerian schoolmaster in 2017.
He invited Zattoni to come to his country. He needed help.
She did some homework, thought it over and decided to go for it.
Since that trip in 2019, Zattoni’s arts and cultural exchange program has reached more than 1,000 Nigerian children. During her visits overseas she helped set up a new school, laid the groundwork for another one and is arranging for online exchanges between kids from Nigeria and kids from Allentown.
In recent years Zattoni, her collaborators and their nonprofit programs have cooperated to reach children in Kenya, Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
Zattoni said she’s driven to help kids. It’s what brought her back to Nigeria for a week in May.
Zattoni, the former Easton Arts Academy school board president, made the recent trip with District Judge Linda Vega and actress/author Jacinth Headlam, who lives in Whitehall. Each of the women developed a program to reach troubled children through the arts.
They’re involved because each of them relied on the arts to overcome trouble in their lives.
Vega has blazed trails as a Latina and LGBTQ community leader who was elected judge in 2022. Success didn’t come easily for her.
Vega was born in Bethlehem but spent a troubled childhood drifting around the Lehigh Valley, New York and Philadelphia. She dropped out of high school and was emancipated at 17. She found herself on the street in New York City at age 13, trying to figure out her purpose in life. She did not fit the expectations of her Latin community. She felt lost.
She got inspired when she stumbled into a cafe with a woman onstage. The woman wasn’t singing or playing music. She was talking. Vega later realized she was hearing spoken-word poetry.
“I don’t know how to explain,” Vega said. “It just felt like home for a second. That’s when I knew what poetry was.”
Vega eventually got her GED and “wrote her way out” of life on the street.
“The arts saved my life,” she said.
Her nonprofit organization, Rilyc, was born more than 20 years ago through arts programs she hosted at her cafe. Now it brings art to children in Allentown and abroad. Zattoni piggybacked her cultural exchange program through Vega’s Rilyc organization. Vega coined the term. The “ri” refers to “Rican,” her Puerto Rican heritage. “Lyc” is short for lyrics, or poetry.
Vega’s arts programs help children work through difficult emotions. They write poems. They create paint poetry. And they mime.
“Everyone always laughs at first,” Vega admits.
Sometimes acting out a scene helps children articulate feelings or troubles they can’t or won’t talk about. It brings them comfort, she said.
The Nigerian children at the Clever Minds school loved it, Zattoni said.
The school was founded by Zion Oshiobughie. His family had no means to support him so he was made a servant to a family at age 16. In exchange for his work, he received an education. That education freed him from poverty. It fueled his desire to help orphans and disadvantaged children to rise out of a Nigerian slum and make something of their lives. His school is free. The uniforms are free. Many children get their only meal of the day in his school, he said in a YouTube video.
Art seems like a luxury for children living in shacks, but it helps them see their lives have value, Zattoni said. She brought lots of paper, crayons and supplies with her last month to Nigeria.
“A lot of those students hadn’t seen the art supplies we had. They never heard of glitter glue,” Zattoni said.
Headlam worked with the children to build confidence through public speaking and modeling.
“They went from not wanting to walk in the fashion show to striking poses and blowing kisses,” Zattoni said. “They didn’t want to walk in front of us. Now they’re walking in front of 300 people.”
Headlam came to the United States from Jamaica when she was 11. The transition was difficult. She tried acting but set it aside when she had her children and took a job in finance. Later in life, she realized she couldn’t be happy unless the creative arts were the center of her life.
“I can’t do 9 to 5,” she said. “I can’t do a traditional job. Nothing else is fulfilling.”
She’s modeled for QVC and acted in shows aired in France, Canada and the Caribbean. She wrote a memoir about her experiences in 2019. The City of Allentown recognized her endeavors and her mentorship work with young people with “Jacinth Headlam Appreciation Day” in 2019.
Zattoni said she struggled growing up on Easton’s South Side as the child of an alcoholic father. She got into trouble and narrowly avoided prison. Along the way she learned how to vent her anger and frustration and use it to inspire change.
Programs like the ones she organizes would have helped her avoid a lot of heartache and difficulty in her teen and young adult years, she said.
“I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.
Rilyc runs programs for children at Trexler and Raub middle schools in Allentown. Zattoni is seeking permission to modify the program so that children from Nigeria can send video messages to the Allentown kids, and the Allentown kids can reciprocate with their own video messages to Nigerians.
“The whole purpose of cultural exchange was so kids from different countries could interact with each other and understand each other on a different level,” Zattoni said. Their lives and cultures are vastly different, and yet children in each country face their own struggles with racism, sexism, poverty and growing up.
The program will give them a better understanding of what it means to be a global citizen and, hopefully, more empathy and self-esteem.
“They’ll have a better understanding of the world they’re going to step into when they graduate from school,” Zattoni said.
You can contribute to the International Culture Exchange Program’s work in Nigeria on its GoFundMe page.
Rudy Miller may be reached at email@example.com.