"I knew students would be glad to have a place to go for dinner, but we've had dividends I never expected." —Susan Helm

Becoming a Chautauqua Parent (“Cha-parent”) technically has only 2 requirements: “attend performances and recitals by your students” and “be a FRIEND to your students.” For some, “friendship” simply means providing a free meal, offering laundry facilities, or transporting students on errands. But at its best, the Connections Program can foster release from routine, networking opportunities, lasting relationships, and much more.

Longtime Chautauquan Susan Helms started the program in 2001 to support summer music students: “They didn’t have anything outside of Bellinger. Occasionally, we had students that didn’t know we had a lake.” Since its founding, this program has been essential to connecting summer students—now including Chautauquan Daily interns, APYA coordinators, voice, piano, and dance students—to broader Chautauquan life.

Of course, not all connections click. Students and their “Cha-Parents” often come from very different backgrounds, and finding common ground can be a challenge.

As theater student James Palmer explained, “We don’t fit the demographic of people who are here, and we engage in conversations that go 0 to 60 really quickly.” He adds, however, that it’s actually these open, albeit heated, discussions that potentially “lead to real relationships.”

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Chautauqua Theater students, who participate in a similar program, reenact initial awkwardness connecting with their Cha-Parents.

Former violin student Rachael Kistler-Igo describes how she could “talk about anything” with her connections, who were “like surrogate parents, but like, cool parents.” Admittedly, Rachael’s connection was Susan Helms herself, but finding a surrogate family through this program isn’t unusual.

In the case of percussionist Julian Loida and his CHQ “mother” Joan Spirtas, the relationship was “more like my grandmother that I never had.” Julian still can’t get over how much Joan did for him: giving him soup when he got sick, advice about girl problems, or text reminders to drink water.

Mostly, Julian just liked to listen. Immersed in arguments about “A major scales” or “whatever excerpt some harp player can’t play,” Julian used the Spirtas’ home as an escape from music school world into “real” life and talk: “I’d get to know her family, her family history, the history of CHQ, the drama at CHQ…”

Julian’s favorite topic was Judaism—especially during his first Shabbat. “Listening to their prayers, eating challah, [being] able to ask questions,” Julian’s Friday dinner was more than escaping the dorm cafeteria. A Catholic who’d studied Jewish music in college, Julian had already spent a year creating a musical piece about the Holocaust using Bach’s Chaconne. But Shabbat with the Spirtas was an opportunity to “experience Judaism firsthand.”

Moreover, meals can also make connections beyond assigned parents. At one of Susan Helms’ weekly Saturday “soirees,” her student Rachael met Grant and Margie Cooper, who work with the West Virginia Symphony. When Rachael moved to West Virginia years later, the Coopers helped Rachael get a job playing in the orchestra and teaching music in the public school system.

Theater student James also made a valuable connection through his parents. When his Cha-parents, Jeff and Judy Posner, heard he was interested in psychologist Kaye Lindauer, “not only did they find her, they signed me up for [her] class on Greek Tragedy.” The Posners helped James take advantage of learning resources beyond the summer school classroom, and he plans to use the class for a Sophocles project this semester in his Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program.

From the Cha-parent perspective, it’s not all give and no take. Just as for students, conversations and recitals can be a welcome “change of pace.” While some hosts “are musicians themselves,” notes Susan, by becoming part of these young professionals’ lives, many also learn “what it takes to do these things.” Some find joy simply in providing students with a face in the crowd.

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Most importantly, Susan adds, “they make friends… They’ve been gone for three days and I miss them terribly.” Susan also recalls how Chautauquan Laurie Miller, who passed away this August, “loved every student she ever met and went to every event she could, even when she was dying.” Even now, Laurie’s financial support helps sustain the program.

Cases like Laurie’s show how the Connections Program goes to the very heart of Chautauqua’s mission: to “be a community” that fosters “sharing of varied cultural, educational, religious, and recreational experience” through “participation by persons of all ages and backgrounds.” By connecting students with longtime Chautauquans, the program both invigorates and expands the CHQ community.

Already, this program has helped initiate loyal Chautauquans. After attending three times as student, Rachael Kistler-Igo, for example, first returned to CHQ to get married (and the night before, her wedding party stayed at Susan’s house). Now, Rachael works full-time in the Program Office, putting on the very shows she attended as a student.

For Rachael, it was people like Susan that made her connect with CHQ: “There are so many beautiful places, but it’s connections with people that make a place special… [when I was a student], some students just came to practice,” but they “missed out on the purpose of CHQ, which is community.”

Rachael, in fact, recently became a Cha-parent herself: “They made such a difference in our lives, we want to pay it forward and provide that same experience for students.”

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Pictured above: To thank their Cha-parents, Julian Loida (shown) and his Cha-sibling, Ben Mapes, flipped convention and made their hosts a pie. The decoration, “J & B,” stands for Joan (shown) & Bob and Julian & Ben.