Tonawanda News

June 9, 2013

Remember Ryan -- a legacy of art and music

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Ryan Bertini was only 8 years old when he died in 2005 — but during the nearly eight years since, the memory of a little boy who loved music and art has ensured that hundreds of children in the North Tonawanda area and beyond have access to those things he enjoyed so much.

The Remember Ryan Foundation, founded by John George, Ryan’s grandfather and a former NT school superintendent, has given away more than $60,000 in grants and awards to local schools since its formation in 2007. George took a moment from working on the Ryan A. Bertini Memorial Meditation Garden at the North Tonawanda Botanical Gardens on Friday to talk about his grandson and the foundation that bears his name.

“Ryan ... was a great little guy,” George said. “He had a lot of health issues, and he went through many, many surgeries. He was always a happy kid, even when he was in pain. He loved music and art, and that’s why we decided when we put the foundation together to focus on that, because that’s what he got the most enjoyment out of. 

“He had to have his little music box when he went to the hospital. Some kids have teddy bears; he had that.”

The Remember Ryan Foundation focuses on providing support for music and art programs in northern Erie and southern Niagara counties, heavily in North Tonawanda. 

There are three types of funding, including grants of various types, direct gifts and the corporate sponsorship program, which includes the North Tonawanda High School Visual and Performing Arts Wall of Fame (which just inducted a new class), the North Tonawanda District Art Show and, recently added, the sponsorship of the St. Christopher School musical

Of the grants, level one include $200 grants, usually given to individual classrooms for short-term projects. Level two includes up to $500 for slightly more expansive projects helping several classrooms or a grade level, and are generally longer term. Level three provides $1,000 grants for projects that involve many students and benefit the school for some time to come, often involving providing musical instruments for those who might not be able to afford them, George said.

Money — which goes 100 percent to the grants fund — is raised through donations and the annual Summerfest fundraiser, which will take place this year July 13. Last year, Ryan’s Runners raised money through the Mighty Niagara half-marathon.

The grants are open to public or private schools at the elementary level. Funds provided have purchased countless instruments for student use, updated sound and light systems at schools, initiated dance programs and tied into music-related projects with components of geography, science and social studies, among many other uses.

“If a teacher can connect it, we’ll fund it,” George said. “It’s been very rewarding in terms of seeing what the kids and their teachers have been able to do, and knowing that they wouldn’t be able to do this without the funding.”

With school district budgets being so tight right now, he said, “It’s the non-core arts that suffer. It’s painful to see music and art departments reduced in size, the supplies are reduced.”

Gregory Woytila, superintendent of schools in North Tonawanda, said the foundation has helped in many respects, including the addition of instruments for children who might not be able to afford or rent them.

“We are lucky enough to have a stock here now, which really gets a lot of kids to develop a skill and talent that maybe they wouldn’t be able to develop due to the price tag,” said Woytila, who wrote a grant himself for display boards and picture frames for the ongoing student art show at administration building. 

“As it grows each year, I see the applications ... expanding and getting more creative,” he said. “It’s definitely benefiting the children for a long time to come and we’re very appreciative of it.”

April Carere, a musical teacher at Meadow Elementary School, been writing grants “since day one,” George said. Carere said that it started with the idea to purchase instruments and took off from there.

“I thought, ‘Gee, why not instruments for kids who can’t afford to buy, purchase and rent, because even that can be expensive?’ “ she said. With those instruments and others, a group of students performed a recital at the memorial garden in 2009.

“Since then, I’ve done it every year. Now it’s become part of my program, it’s part of what I do,” Carere said. “The kids raise their hand and say, ‘Mrs. Carere, can I play in the Remember Ryan recital?’ It’s become very student-centered.”

Now, two Remember Ryan concerts organized by students take place, held in the NT Alumni Center as they’ve outgrown all their past sites.

“It’s nice because I explain to the students, too. ‘You didn’t know Ryan. ... We’re keeping his memory alive through music,’ “ she said. “It helps everybody involved.”

At St. Christopher’s School, art teacher Michele Kerr said funds provided through the foundation helped pay for a field trip to the Albright-Knox and Burchfield Penney art galleries and made it possible for 20 seventh- and eighth-graders to take part in the Art Alive contest at Albright-Knox — for which they have won the People’s Choice award for their tableau two years in a row

“We were able to do everything because of their grant,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without their help, for sure. People don’t realize how much even paint costs. For them to cover all of our expense, it really makes this experience just so much more enjoyable for the kids.”

The foundation has just announced its 2013-14 first round of grant awards, totaling $8,585.

For more information, visit

REMEMBER RYAN FOUNDATION The Remember Ryan Foundation announced $8,585 in grants for 2013-14. They are: • Orleans-Niagara BOCES (North Tonawanda Middle School site), Kris Reinhart, $1,000 for "Traveling the World With iPads" • Meadow Elementary School, April Carere, $1,000 for "Remember Ryan Recital" • Meadow Elementary School, Virginia Simoncelli, $1,000 for "Orff Instrument Instruction" • Orleans-Niagara BOCES (North Tonawanda Middle School site), Kathleen Walder/Mary Gurley, $775 for "Sensory Room Enchancements" • Ohio Elementary School, Kelly Castronova/Michael Tamboni, $580 for "Where in America is Mr. Tamboni: A Hands & Feet On Georgraphy Adventure" • North Tonawanda Middle School, Christina Davis/Jacalyn Fernandez, $500 for "Scholastic Arts Magazine" • Drake Elementary School, Lisa Tromboli/Debra Swartz, $350 for "Drake Kindergarten/Sixth grade Bishop Gibbons Project" Corporate sponsorships for 2013-14 include: • St. Christopher School musical, $2,000 • NTHS Visual and Performing Arts Wall of Fame, $850 • NT District Art Show, $500