High School Interns Power East Lake Expression Engine

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High School Interns Power East Lake Expression Engine

Leyda Juarez and Libby O’Neil with Axel Gonzalez, Andres Lopez, Yordy Lopez, Ronaldo Lopez Lorenzo, Araceli Reyonoso Reynoso, Floridalma Reynoso Reynoso, Jafeth Ruiz, and Elisa Velasquez


Intern Group—front row, Flori, Leyda, Araceli; upper row, Axel, Ronaldo, Jafeth, Andres. Photo: ELEE.

“I’ve seen all of y’all grow. You’ve just been thrown into things, and I’ve seen you deal with them really well. You’ve been able to do hard things and adapt without hesitation.”

Leyda Juarez, Assistant Office Manager at the East Lake Expression Engine (ELEE), in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was talking to a group of eight teenagers she helps manage. They were discussing what they had been learning through their internships with “The Engine,” an after-school and summer music program that develops the creativity, discipline, problem-solving skills, social skills, and spiritual maturity of its students through musical instruction and collaboration in a gospel-centered environment.

She was reminding them that they have taught classes unexpectedly, learned how to teach their instruments, and even learned how to teach students to teach. The teens were reflecting on what the intern program at Expression Engine is like. Leyda asked them to give one-word, rapid-fire responses. Among the answers offered: “Opportunity, friendships, connection, relationships, experience, fun, funny, tiring, loud, exciting, comforting, comfortable, supportive.” And: “You just never know what to expect!” Leyda, the oldest of our very first students (and only one year out of Expression Engine’s intern program), has a unique vantage point. She is the first Expression Engine student to progress to being an intern and then to being on staff. But she will not be the last.

At Expression Engine, we hire our students. Our students are our expansion plan, our growing capacity, and our future. We hire them as interns at 14, and, since they have already been participating in peer teaching, they are ready to step up. “The Engine” belongs to them, and they know it. We’re here to help them succeed in whatever direction they choose, but we also plan to have jobs for them here if they want those jobs. Our hope is that as they are ready for more work, we will be able to expand to offer music to more kids.

Intern Ronaldo repairing a student’s trumpet. Photo: ELEE.

The consensus opinion here is that growth, personal and professional, comes from the intern experience at Expression Engine. Leyda’s group discussion with the interns made it clear that they are a unit; they rely on each other, laugh together, call each other to a higher standard, and support each other through hard times. These teens are a gift to Expression Engine, to the students and staff alike. Their kindness, commitment, and willingness to try new or hard things never ceases to amaze. They are proud of the steps they take, even when a new task or opportunity is daunting.

Covid was hard for us, as for everyone, but it gave us a few gifts. One of those gifts was time specifically with our teens. In summer 2020, when we would usually have been running an eight-week camp, we spent time with our interns. We learned more about El Sistema. We talked about current events and politics, and we processed pandemic life in a neighborhood that was hit hard. The interns helped us to figure out what kids and their families needed and to craft a strategy to serve them. When we were finally able to have kids in classes again, these teens made it possible. Subbing for teachers, coming up with creative solutions to many barriers, and doing so much cleaning! Expression Engine could not have functioned that fall without them. The summer they spent together made them a powerful team built on time, trust, and laughter, and they helped us bring our students back.

This year is really exciting for the future of our intern program. Several organizations are making it possible for us to hire more teens and to give them even more opportunities and professional development. The interns had a huge list of ideas about what they wanted to do and have access to, and what they would like the new interns to experience. From more pedagogy training, to added opportunities on instruments, to college prep help, we have been able to add the interns’ asks to our programming.

Interns Araceli, Elisa, Axel, and Flori by the Chattanooga River after a field trip. Photo: ELEE.

When we run our summer camps, we always pick a theme for the camp. Then we pick our repertoire based on the theme; we model our lessons around it; and when we launch our creative project, we write our music about it. The interns have done this as students for many years, and now they get to assist in facilitating creative sessions. When they were delving together into their intern experiences, they noticed that our themes have always reflected and acknowledged what happened during the year, even if it was hard. They have learned how to lean into complex feelings, sharing the vulnerable parts of themselves, and directing those emotions into beautiful works of art.

The interns all agreed that they have learned to be more flexible at “the Engine.” They mentioned that they sometimes feel “uncomfortable” but that they have learned new things through that discomfort. As one of our more senior interns said: “In this organization, when we connect to somebody, we don’t just connect about work. We can help one another.”


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