Ithaca's Community Unity Music Education Program is on the rise
Nia Nunn-Makepeace leads students taking part in the Community Unity Music Education Program in a dance during a CUMEP session. (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

"When I look in the mirror, I see an amazing young person looking back at me!"

That was the shout from the chorus of youngsters at Southside Community Center on a beautiful Monday morning, as they were led in a call-and-response chant by Nia Nunn-Makepeace, a psychologist at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School and one of the directors of the Community Unity Music Education Program.

The Community Unity Music Education Program (or CUMEP, for short) got its start as a small after-school program in 2000, before later expanding into a summer camp for children in 2003, said CUMEP's founder Fe Nunn, a local educator and musician. Nunn's vision for the camp was to foster an educational environment that would support the three pillars of developing self-esteem, ensuring academic success, and encouraging civic and social responsibility.

"This is a school, more than a music camp," said Nunn. "The whole goal is to foster performing arts education. The children here focus on community, music, and language arts literacy. Each child is expected to keep a journal, with the younger children drawing in their journals instead of writing."

CUMEP serves children from ages three-and-a-half to 11. Originally, only children between six and 12 were admitted, but Nunn found that younger children could participate in the activities too. With the very young children, however, parents stay with their children.

The camp combines Nunn's experience as an educator and as a musician. A graduate of Ithaca College, Nunn's background is in sociology and education, but he's also been playing the piano and writing music for radio and television for many years. His work with CUMEP draws on all of these experiences, he explained.

"The kids here play music, strings, piano, percussion," Nunn said. "We have a strong relationship with Ithaca College, and there's a piano and string instructor who comes from IC to teach the kids."

The kids also do a lot of dancing: They start the day off with a dance led by Nunn-Makepeace, who Nunn described as a "mover and shaker of the program." The dance, Nunn said, is also one of the main features of a big show that will happen the last Thursday of July.

Nunn said that CUMEP has a strong working relationship with local civic and government organizations, such as the New Roots Charter School and the YES Program at the Ithaca Youth Bureau, which supplies most of the counselors for CUMEP. CUMEP is funded by a mix of local donors, including the Travis family and the Ithaca Rotary Club.

Nunn said CUMEP's numbers have grown dramatically over the years. The program started out with 19 children in 2003 and today has grown to an enrollment of 90. One of the best things about the program, Nunn said, is to see the diversity among the children.

"It's a really multicultural group," said Nunn. "The kids are coming from all over. You have children from different backgrounds, different religions, different races, and different income levels. I think the diversity is one the program's strongest assets."

If you would like to learn more about CUMEP, you can visit the organization's Web site at


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