The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Justin Pasquazzi, co-founder and president of ASTRO (Arts, Sports, and Technology Resource Organization), a learning center for youths and adults based in Pawtucket, R.I.
Question: When was ASTRO founded and what is its mission?
My cousin Michael and I founded ASTRO in 2014. Our mission is to champion equity among diverse populations by innovating health-promoting programs that improve the way people live, learn, work, and play.
Q: On Oct. 5, the Social Enterprise Greenhouse announced that it was providing ASTRO with a $25,000 loan. What will you use the money for?
Funds acquired through this loan will provide working capital for ASTRO to expand our operations and offer day care services to adult populations. We originally started out in adult services, but the community need that took precedence was providing a safe place for kids to be during the out-of-school time, and this is where we have focused the majority of our efforts over the years.
Now that many adults have been displaced from their day programs due to COVID-19 restrictions on numbers, there is a great need in the community for healthy activities for adults during the day.
Thanks to the SEG Loan Fund, ASTRO now has the backing to take on this next venture. Parents and community members have been calling ASTRO in large volumes looking for more adult services. With the license we plan to receive from the Rhode Island Department of Health, ASTRO will be able to accommodate the requests of our community with a new business model that supports sustainability and growth for our organization.
Q: How do ASTRO’s programs promote diversity? Can you quantify the diversity of the people or the community you serve?
ASTRO greatly values the diversity of the people we serve. As an organization, we have structured our business model to empower our members, employees, volunteers, and constituents to self-direct their own experience with ASTRO, by offering structural support for people to grow their passions.
This model has allowed us to foster the diversity of our community by helping our members bring their own culture, identity, values, interests, and personalities into the programs we offer. Embracing diversity is a part of the culture at ASTRO, and it is something that is consistent from the members we serve all the way up to our board of directors.
Evidence of this can be seen in our summer programming this past session, where the breakdown for our members was as follows: 25 percent Caucasian, 9 percent African-American, 33 percent Hispanic or Latino, 6 percent Native American, and 27 percent mixed race.
Our board of directors includes a steady balance of Asian, Latino and Hispanic, Caucasian, and African-American individuals that help provide our board with extensive diversity. Gender is also well balanced, as 43 percent of the board consists of female members. In total, 64 percent of all board members are either female or people of color, a testament to our company’s diversity.
Q: How many people has ASTRO served and can you give an example of the difference made by participation in the group’s programs?
Our current total number of people served is 1,697. There are plenty of great success stories that we can share. This summer was perhaps the most impactful we have had to date.
One person that comes to mind is an adult who found our organization in search of a mentorship program. This person wanted to build his social networks, engage with his community, and become more independent. He became my protege and we spent time together singing karaoke, going for hikes, and doing life’s chores like laundry and shopping.
He became active in volunteer work with ASTRO and eventually joined our board of directors. When he was laid off from his job early this year, the poor financial health of him and his family was causing stress and confusion. Working together, we were able to find him meaningful employment and community engagement during a pandemic. We talk weekly, and being there for each other over the past five years to talk about the good and bad events of life has been comforting for us both, and it is something we have grown to rely upon.
Q: What are some of the artistic programs that ASTRO offers and what is their value?
At the core of our arts program is music. We are playing tunes at ASTRO all day and our team of coaches takes time to pick out playlists from a wide variety of genres and time periods. Additionally, our music room is always pumping out the soothing sounds of live music from our members and staff.
Art is a universal form of self-expression and communication, and that is why we encourage our members to find the art form that they can relate to and take time each week to challenge creative constraints. The process of creating art demands the practice of resiliency. We offer classes in dance, music, performing arts, and mixed-media visual arts.
Mental health counselors are present at all of our art classes to aid participants in channeling their art into a therapeutic practice. With little funding being allocated for art programs in our community, ASTRO has placed a high priority on offering accessible art programs to high risk populations. As always, all of our programs are offered for free to our members.
Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected ASTRO’s operations, and how have you adapted?
With the closures of schools this past spring, ASTRO went from serving roughly 350 members per quarter at the start of 2020, to 14 in the second quarter, 70 in the third quarter, and now we are expecting our lowest fall numbers since 2016, with a current enrollment total of 43.
Before the pandemic, our operations consisted of contract fulfillment for in-person health promoting programs at schools and adult day programs. When these venues closed, we were forced to change our business model. With the recent hire of licensed mental health counselor Jaime Durand, we can now shift our model to providing therapeutic services that meet the needs of a community which has been traumatized by the changes in life caused by the pandemic.
Our services are poised to stand out from the traditional therapeutic model through the provision of educational opportunities, healthy and nourishing snacks or meals, and the inclusion of yoga, art, and exercise. This model creates a safe space for individuals, allowing for the balance of physical, behavioral, and social health, with positive energy and mindset.