Art and Employment – How SCSEP Participant Sylvia Blends Creativity and Work

Ella Fitzgerald had said, “Just don’t give up what you’re trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

The American jazz singer inspired millions through her words, music, and activism. We know that some of the most inspiring moments are not just through words, but actions.

Another lifelong singer right here in Ohio – Cincinnati native and SCSEP participant Silvia Yorke – has a story that does just that.

At age 84, Silvia currently participates in Vantage Aging’s Senior Community Service Employment Program to build her skills on a pathway to her career goals. On top of that, she recently graduated from Ohio Media School in January 2022 after studying broadcasting and voiceover work for eight months.

As an active senior who continues to show her creativity and love for learning, Sylvia doesn’t believe in sitting down and turning off when you reach a certain age. With a background like hers, we can’t say that we expect anything less from this extraordinary woman.

A lifelong performer and creative

Born in the late 1930s, Sylvia boasts an impressive history of studies, travels, and creativity. As a graduate of Juilliard School of Music in New York, she was a professional opera singer for nearly all her life.

She studied opera in Europe at The Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria and the Muziklyceum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. But her singing career had humble beginnings in her hometown at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.

“I used to sing in school and my teacher thought I had a nice voice,” Sylvia recalled. “She took me to a voice coach who gave me lessons every day. I won a few awards and he said, ‘You need to be in Europe’. I went there, and I got a break.”

Sylvia landed the title role of “Madame Butterfly” in Trier, Germany, and continued her operatic career throughout Europe and the United States for 30 plus years. She notes that she would still be there performing now, but her opera career ended unexpectedly when her mother fell ill. After three decades, Sylvia packed up and returned home to Cincinnati to care for her.

While caring for her mom, Sylvia began exploring new ways to channel her creativity. In 2016, she published the children’s book “Molly, the Opera-singing Cow”. The book is about “just another cow” who discovers a unique interest in opera music that turns into something much bigger than she could have expected. While there are some bumps along the way, Molly learns to preserver and makes it to the big fair.

Does the story sound familiar? As an older adult, Sylvia continued to use her talents to inspire children just as her teacher had encouraged her years ago.

Job training with Vantage’s SCSEP

When Sylvia returned to Cincinnati, she decided to enroll in Vantage Aging’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) in Hamilton County, Ohio. Funded by the Department of Labor and Ohio Department of Aging, SCSEP provides paid, hands-on training to job seekers age 55 and older who are trying to re-enter the workforce.

Vantage provides the SCSEP program in 38 Ohio counties to hundreds of older job seekers each year. By empowering older adults with the skills and confidence they need to reach their career goals, the program contributes to healthier local economies and more independent, self-sufficient community members across the state.

At the time of writing, Sylvia trains at West College Hill Neighborhood Services, a nonprofit agency serving the material and social needs of residents of West College Hill and surrounding Cincinnati communities.

Sylvia’s role is to greet each person and connect them to the appropriate programs. She must be knowledgeable about all the inner workings at West College Hill Neighborhood Services and empathetic to each person’s situation. She loves working directly with community members and looks forward to the organization’s upcoming growth.

Sylvia said that the biggest accomplishment she has worked towards as a SCSEP participant has been fine-tuning her communication skills. She understands that being able to effectively communicate with so many different people from all backgrounds and personalities is a skill needed for her role.

“Ms. Sylvia is an inspiration to all of us at Vantage,” said Vantage Project Director Mercedes Bello. “She is a woman full of energy, and she still has a lot to do. Her daily messages are important, along with her presence in the world – ‘Go ahead’ … ‘Continue fighting’ … ‘We can do it’. We are so proud of Ms. Yorke. She is walking proof that Vantage is promoting a positive perspective in aging.”

Vantage’s SCSEP program and Ohio Media School have helped increase Sylvia’s career skills and she hopes to find employment soon.

Ohio Media School in her 80s

In addition to participating in Vantage’s SCSEP program, she decided to attend Ohio Media School when her mother passed away in 2021.

Ohio Media School gives hands-on technical training, guides students on a step-by-step career path, and provides the tools needed to have a competitive edge in the highly competitive media field. The institution provides hands-on training for students in broadcasting, video and film production, directing, media sales and marketing, and more media-related subfields.

Sylvia was a public radio announcer for the Association of Industries for the Blind for over 10 years, so Ohio Media School seemed like a natural fit. She was comfortable using her voice in her profession but starting school in her 80s took some adjusting. As soon as she walked onto campus, she noticed the age difference between her and the other students.

“They were all young people and I was a little nervous at first,” said Sylvia. “But everybody was extremely nice and courteous. I had a teacher who encouraged me and insisted that I was going to graduate each day. Every step of the way was hard, but the people were lovely, and I made it to the end. I loved every minute of it.”

While enrolled in courses, Sylva focused on voicework and broadcasting. She was drawn to new technologies and enjoyed exploring the unfamiliar. One program that caught her eye was After Effects, which is a tool that is used to add elements to moving pictures and animations. For example, you can use After Effects to create titles, introductions, and transitions between clips.

Although Sylvia knew nothing about the program when she started, she was fascinated by learning new technical skills that utilized her creative side.

“I want to be up to date with things,” said Sylvia. “Even if we did not grow up with a lot of this technology, older adults still have the ability to learn. As seniors, we ought to know our own potential for today’s world.”

Upon graduating from Ohio Media School, Sylvia received a special recognition. She was presented with an Accountability Special Award in addition to her diploma. When they called her onto the stage at graduation, she received a standing ovation from her teachers, classmates, and members of the public who attended the ceremony.

“I was in shock,” said Sylvia. “I felt so loved and supported by the school and my project director at Vantage Aging.”

Not looking back

Sylvia has been on a journey with many different paths throughout her life. One thing has remained consistent – she takes on challenges with a fierce desire to learn, grow, and lift up others along the way.

After building an impressive operatic career from Cincinnati Ohio to stages across Europe – which was no easy feat for an African American woman trying to make it in the limelight – she answered the call of caregiving when her loved ones needed it most.

When asked if she was sad about having to return home after all that time, Sylvia did not hesitate. “I’m so glad I came home to care for my mom. Those few years were precious to me. It made up for lost time and I feel good to help somebody that I love.”

What’s next for Sylvia?

As Sylvia’s time with Vantage’s SCSEP program closes, she is gearing up for the next chapter of her career. She has partnered with her former teacher from Ohio Media School on a podcast project called Podcast Lemonade. The pair plan on interviewing seniors about topics that will help older adults stay relevant, empowered, and engaged.

Sylvia is always looking for new opportunities that will spark her interest. While she has learned over time to not have “too many irons in the fire,” she looks forward to being able to be creative and inventive in her next professional role.

“As long as I’m independent and doing my own thing, I’ll be OK,” said Sylvia. “I don’t want to sit at home watching television all day. I’ve got plenty of things in my head for the future and will continue working on things that I love.”

Sylvia’s final work for her documentary class at Ohio Media School featured a seven-minute documentary on Vantage’s SCSEP program and some of her fellow participants. You can view her complete video here.

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