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'Wonderful union' Rockwell works for the cause, not the applause

by Krishnan Collins | December 19, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Gina Rockwell. File photo by The Sentinel-Record

Always involved in nonprofit work, Gina Rockwell basically fell into her role as program manager at Arkansas Learning Through the Arts because of the pandemic, and has made the most of her new opportunity.

The coronavirus forced Rockwell to look for a new job, and although she really did not know anything about ALTTA, she leapt at the opportunity and used her previous nonprofit experience to help guide her in her new role.

Growing up, Rockwell wanted to be on Broadway and then later a theater teacher. However, she had always worked well with children and somewhere along the way she just naturally became heavily involved with nonprofits. She holds experience at the YMCA, Lakeside School District and more.

"I think Arkansas Learning Through the Arts chose me," Rockwell said. "It's perfect. It brings my theater background together. It brings my love for children together. It's a wonderful union."

ALTTA sends artists to schools around the state to teach special art programs to students.

"Our goal is to bring art into learning," Rockwell said. "Integrate them, the importance of it. We bring literacy to life. So we do that by bringing artists into classrooms. We usually like to be in the literacy class. We bring African drumming, poetry, pottery, dance, songwriting. Whatever they want, we can give it to them."

ALTTA's current roster of programs includes lessons for students from kindergarten all the way through seventh grade. Children in the programs can experience lessons in African folk tales, sea shanties, Haiku, the Jazz Age, Native American culture and much more.

In her role as program manager, Rockwell acts as the liaison between the schools and the artists. ALTTA is not selective when it comes to what schools get programs.

"We have nine working artists who are professional artists," Rockwell said. "I bring them together and that's what I do. Whoever wants it, we are going to give it to them. We don't choose. We're not selective in what we do. We want it to go statewide and ultimately worldwide. Whoever wants us, we will definitely service them."

Rockwell graduated with a degree in communication and journalism with a minor in theater from Arkansas Tech. With her background in theater, ALTTA obviously puts on programs that Rockwell sees as important for children.

"I am a big theater girl, big drummer girl," she said. "I know how important theater is. When I competed in Miss Arkansas my platform was keeping performing arts in education. I believe for the students that aren't into books like that, but can act or dance or sing, it's the same thing. It's all learning in different ways."

Rockwell worked for the YMCA as a director and learned about the corporate side of nonprofits. Now, she is on the board for the YMCA and uses her previous experience at the organization as a board member.

She is also on the boards of The CALL in Garland County, Ali's A.C.E. Closet and the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance.

Rockwell said she is involved with these organizations because her motto is, "Do it for a cause, not an applause."

"I've always known that giving back was important," Rockwell said. "I knew that nonprofit work is important. Nonprofit is good. It's a good thing. Did I know that this is what I wanted to do? No, because I didn't even know that program manager for Arkansas Learning Through the Arts was a thing but being able to have the arts and what I love with children come together is good."

Being in a brand-new role at ALTTA during the pandemic did cause some challenges for Rockwell. ALTTA's programs involve artists going to schools and teaching in person, so ALTTA had to adapt to COVID-19 precautions.

"We had to get creative and we actually offered Zoom over the time where they weren't letting us in," Rockwell said. "We had Zoom drums. We had Zoom dance. We did Zoom pottery. All over Zoom. The hard part was schools allowing us in. So now we've just got to get reacclimated and let them know we're still ready to give them what they need."

Coming out of the pandemic, Rockwell calls the organization Arkansas Learning Through the Arts 2.0. Rockwell just moved into her office two months ago after working from home.

"That has already made us more visible," she said. "We have already added more programs to our roster so we know that when schools are ready, we'll be ready for them to have what they're looking for. I think we're just ready. We're fired up. We're ready to be worldwide if they want us."

Rockwell is the program director for central Arkansas, and the organization is present in schools around Garland County, Pulaski County and surrounding areas. ALTTA also operates in the Delta region of the state.

Rockwell said seeing the children is the most rewarding part of working at ALTTA.

"On the first day they're not really participating or talking," she said. "By the last day, at the end, they're up ready performing, the star of the show. That has been the most rewarding, seeing the kids actually learn."

She pointed to Kai Coggin, one of the poets who works with the organization, as someone who puts on very thought-provoking and touching programs.

"The poetry is always good," Rockwell said. "(Coggin) is wonderful. Her programs are always very thought-provoking and touching with the students. It's always fun to see the students do the drumming, as well. It's always good. I would I say I can't pick because all of them are so good but the poetry always touches me, to see the kids open up through poem."

Working with children was always on the cards for Rockwell. She said she has always been a teacher, and Rockwell even taught her dolls or anyone that would let her teach them.

Although she wanted to be a teacher originally, much like the opportunity ALTTA, the nonprofit life just fell into her lap.

"It just happened," she said. "I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to be a nonprofit worker.' It just happened and once I got into it, once you pop you can't stop. I love it. It's good work."

Rockwell's father has been a pastor of a church for 50 years, so Rockwell met a lot of people throughout the years and learned how to communicate with them.

"I've met all kinds of people, and I'm able to communicate with all kinds of people," Rockwell said. "I believe that from a little girl people were my thing. So it was a natural choice after not being a theater teacher."

Rockwell's natural affinity to communicate and her degree in communication both prove handy in the nonprofit world.

"You have to reach out to people," she said. "We depend on the community to help us sustain and help us get the word out. I have to be able to walk into the church and ask them for help. I have to be able to walk into the bar next door and ask them for help. So I just believe in being versatile."

Moving forward in her career and in her new role, Rockwell said the biggest challenges ahead are learning her position and getting acclimated to what helps ALTTA work specifically as every nonprofit is different.

"I know that nonprofit will be a part of me even if I'm not working," Rockwell said. "I know I'll always be a part. I just got into this role so learning this role better and performing this role is my goal. We'll see what happens after that."

For those who might want to start a career in the nonprofit world or just contribute where they can, Rockwell echoed her motto.

"Do it for the cause, not the applause," she said. "Once you get that down in your soul, this nonprofit work like I said it can be difficult, but it's worth it."

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