At age 87, Beverley Taylor Sorenson still does battle with Utah lawmakers to retain financial support for the elementary school arts programs she began developing in 1997.
"Every year we go back to the Legislature. They know who I am now," Sorenson said. "They've been supportive, but it's a hard sell because they have so many demands on the funding that's given out."
Sorenson's reputation as a tireless advocate for children and the arts extends well beyond Utah's Capitol Hill. Next Wednesday, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce will recognize her with the prestigious 2011 Athena Award.
The Arts Learning Program that bears her name trains art specialists at four universities Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, the University of Utah and Utah State University and integrates music, dance and visual arts into the curriculum of 50 grade schools around the state.
The Art Works for Kids teaching model is credited with enhancing the overall education, morale and behavior of more than 100,000 grade-school students.
In 2002, lawmakers funded Sorenson's pilot program but rescinded part of the money due to budget shortfalls. Sorenson bridged that gap with her own money.
In 2008 the Legislature allocated $16 million to fuel the program in 50 schools for four years. However, a year later the economic downturn caused lawmakers to cut funding by 37 percent.
In 2010 lawmakers propped up the program with $658,000.
This March, lawmakers allocated $4 million for the program's fourth year, with the hope of acquiring enough data to document its effectiveness.
According to the website artworksforkids.org, Sorenson's program has "played a transformative role" for at-risk students attending Ogden's inner-city James Madison Elementary School.
Julie Palmer-Gnotta, principal for James Madison, said that integrating the arts into the core curriculum has been especially beneficial to students who are learning English as their second language. About 70 percent of the school's 630 children fall in that category.
Sorenson's program began at James Madison three years ago, and Palmer-Gnotta said students have gained motivation and a self-efficacy that spills over into their core academic work.
"They find a strength they have" through choir, visual arts or performing in a play, Palmer-Gnotta said. "It's so important they have something they do well and can feel successful at."
Last year Sorenson dropped in on James Madison's family arts night, her presence leaving a lasting impression.
"We appreciate how personally involved and invested she is," Palmer-Gnotta said. "It means a lot to our kids."
Sorenson's own life exemplifies what exposure to the arts can do for a child. She grew up during the Great Depression, her parents made sure the house was filled with music. At age 8, Sorenson learned how to play the family's Steinway upright piano, taking lessons from her older sister, Virginia Bradford.
She later took ballet classes and as a teen, her dancing and piano skills opened doors.
"When I turned 14, I made 50 cents an hour playing for the dancing school," Sorenson said. "I was shy and where I didn't do well, it built my self-esteem."
Ultimately, Sorenson earned a teaching degree from the University of Utah, then took a teaching job in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she met her husband biotechnology pioneer James LeVoy Sorenson.
The couple raised eight children together, and James Sorenson passed away in January 2008. His wife charges on.
"We're teaching the whole child," Sorenson said. "We're making progress. I feel like what we're doing is right and it's good."
Honoring 'Women in Motion'
P The 35th Annual Women & Business Conference takes place Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at The Little America Hotel, 500 S. Main St., Salt Lake City. Conference attendance is free, but donations are welcome.
Athena Award Luncheon, noon to 1:30 p.m., costs $75 per person or $1,500 to sponsor a table.