Magazine Features

Stars are Born in Ironbound

The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Newark, Ironbound Community Center in Newark, N.J. reaches its youngest residents with after–school and summer programs, social groups, and performing arts classes.

Zelia Oliveira has brought a lifetime of experience in theater arts to The Salvation Army. “It doesn’t matter what you become,” Ms. Zee says to the children, “what matters is what you do with what you become.”

Oliveira, who once aspired to be on Broadway, also encourages a strong work ethic. “If you want to be a performer, be the greatest performer that those judges have ever seen. If you want to be a sanitation worker, be the best, most hardworking worker in the city of Newark,” she says.

Absorbing the Arts

When Zelia was four years old, her family immigrated from Portugal to Newark, N.J. From a young age, she was drawn to Broadway. But in grade school, Zelia’s mother forbade her to travel to New York to compete in an open audition for “Annie.”

“Theater was in my blood,” says Oliveira, whose parents had been stage performers in Portugal. “But singing only for my mother inside our home was not my goal.”

After finishing college in 1983, Zelia started her own local traveling theater group, doing shows around New Jersey and recruiting other actors. Her group grew to 400 members and did musical performances in both English and Portuguese.

Oliveira came to the Boys & Girls Club in 1999. First as a volunteer and later as program director, she brought her knowledge of performing, along with 80 children to enroll at the community center.

“My theater group had played for New Jersey’s police and firemen. I had traveled from school to school, meeting families, and attending board of education meetings in Newark,” says Oliveira. “I knew the community well.”

She also knew how to inspire people to love the stage, including those closest to her. Zelia’s three daughters had become performers like their mother.

“Using our own money and with the help of sponsors, my kids have been blessed with thousands of dollars worth of acting and theater lessons,” says Oliveira. “I sat through every one of their classes—watching, listening, and absorbing everything they learned.”

“[The lessons] were easy to memorize, because I loved theater myself. And now, I can share all that knowledge here at The Salvation Army.”

ZClub, the performing arts group at the Boys & Girls Club, is where Oliveira shares those lessons. Children take part in song performances ranging from Broadway classics to modern hits.

I’m so lucky to be part of The Salvation Army. But if I wasn’t here, I’d still be looking for ways to serve. There is always something that we can give to others, even if all we have are our experiences and our passions.” — Zelia Oliveira
Included are vocal training and workshops to develop confidence on stage, as well as respect for their teachers and each other. Every year, ZClub performs two musicals for the Ironbound community. Aspiring actors who want to pursue theater beyond ZClub sign up for auditions and competitions in New York City, with Oliveira alongside them. One of the lessons that she stresses at these auditions is that the choice of song can be just as important as the performance itself.

“When our children go to Manhattan to audition, judges think they have been professionally trained,” says Oliveira. “I tell the judges, ‘there’s so much talent and potential here in Newark.’”

Almost there

Twelve–year–old Vivian Lightner came to the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club four years ago. “When I arrived, ZClub was doing a performance of ‘Annie.’ I got the role of July, one of the orphans,” remembers Vivian.

Though shy at first, she made new friends and developed a talent for singing that even surprised her mother.

“When Vivian gets on stage, she becomes a different person. It’s a side to her that I had never seen,” says Zondre, Vivian’s mother. “But now, I look forward to all her performances. My daughter literally found her voice here.”

Oliveira submitted a video of Vivian to competitions in New York. Since then, Vivian has sung with the New York Gospel Choir and alongside Broadway star Nathan Lee Graham. However, Vivian says that children who don’t attain such success still have a part to play in ZClub.

“If you didn’t get that part you wanted, it’s okay, because Ms. Zee will have a role for you to play. You will never sit on the sideline during ZClub,” says Vivian.

“ZClub is a family. If there’s an argument or a disagreement, we stop and solve it and we continue on, like families do,” says Vivian. She would like to one day be a counselor at the Boys & Girls Club.

“I’m bringing Vivian here until the day they tell her that she’s too old to come!” says Zondre, laughing.

“She’ll never be too old to be a part of us,” says Ms. Zee. She listens to Vivian sing the chorus to “Almost There,” from the animated movie “The Princess and the Frog.” It’s a fitting choice for a talented young girl who may only be a performance away from her big break.

“I want to take Vivian to TV singing competitions the next time they come to New Jersey,” says Oliveira. “She’s going to be famous someday.”

Neckties and Portuguese lessons

Aside from ZClub, Oliveira finds time to participate in programs that Newark Ironbound offers, such as Skills Mastery and Resistance Training (SMART) Girls. Young women learn about health, leadership, and self–esteem development. Passport to Manhood is a similar program designed for teenage boys.

Ms. Zee remembers an occasion when she had to help one of the Passport to Manhood counselors develop his own life skills.

“He never learned how to tie a necktie,” said Oliveira. “He did not have a father figure in his life to teach him. Years ago, I had learned to do it from watching the TV show “Three’s Company.” So, we gathered a bunch of ties from the costume closet, and I made sure that he, and all the boys in the program, learned to do it themselves.”

Oliveira also found a way to share her Portuguese heritage. She kept school notes and textbooks from her time attending a Portuguese school in Newark as a companion to her studies in English. She photocopied these lessons and started a “Portuguese for Beginners” class at the Club.

Twice a week, Oliveira taught the language and history of Portugal. Though the program ended due to her other responsibilities at the Club, she hopes that one day it can return in some way. Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood has a large Portuguese community, and the classes were very popular.

“On the first day, we had 25 children sign up, and that wasn’t even counting the parents who wanted to learn too,” says Oliveira.

A service to succeed

“Just as I did with my own daughters, I’m always trying to give these kids the opportunities I wish I would have had,” says Ms. Zee.

Although her life might have been different if in grade school, Zelia’s mother had let her travel to New York for that “Annie” audition, Oliveira would not change a thing about where she is today. To the families and the children of Ironbound, she is as big a star as any Broadway performer or stage vocalist. 

“Ms. Zee loves the kids that walk into Ironbound,” says Zondre. “Without that love, you can come in, do the work, and go home. But Ms. Zee is a teacher, counselor, and second mom to many of the children here. This is more than just work for her.”

Says Zelia, “I’m so lucky to be part of The Salvation Army. But if I wasn’t here, I’d still be looking for ways to serve. There is always something that we can give to others, even if all we have are our experiences and our passions.”

After taking a deep breath and a moment of reflection, she said, “And today, my passion is to help others succeed. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to do my best to make someone from this Boys & Girls Club famous.”

by Hugo Bravo

photography by Susan Magnano