Not Just Doing Good. Making a Difference"All the arts are about generosity, giving something back to the public."
Diana Byer, founder and artistic director for the New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB), remembers the dance company's early outreach to homeless children. It was the late 1980s, and the NYTB partnered with New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs to host selected children for breakfast, a ballet lesson and a hot lunch.
"You'd give the kids a taste for a week," she recalls. "What about afterwards?"
It was a question she answered herself, founding a year-round study program for at-risk and homeless children. She named it LIFT.
For more than a decade, she and the NYTB have been dedicated not only to the artistic development of disadvantaged students admitted to the program, but also to lifting them up beyond their circumstances. "It has been a proven thing that studying an art form helps children learn better in school," she says. "All of the kids' grades go up. To learn dance, your mind has to be sharp. It has to be quick."
LIFT's reach goes way beyond the barre, offering clothing, medical services, even mentors for those whose parents are unavailable or uninvolved in their lives. Recently the program placed a boy in private school because he was falling through the cracks in public school. He is currently maintaining a 92 percent average in his schoolwork, Byer says.
Based on auditions held in shelters and other locations, up to 30 children are enrolled in LIFT each year on partial or full scholarship. They attend classes at Ballet School NY, run by Byer and NYTB, though they are not identified as being different from any of the other students.
While some students have gone on to careers in ballet, those who haven't still find support from the company. "It's an ongoing thing," Byer says. "It's not a do-gooder, let's help the child for a year [thing]."
LIFT is always seeking volunteer mentors from the community who can provide adult guidance and support for the children. A mentor, for instance, might make a phone call to a teacher or counselor once a month to see how the child is performing at school and to intervene, when necessary. "It should be someone who wants to do it not to feel good about themselves, but who really cares about the child," Byer says.
Mentors are often part of children's lives even after LIFT. Some students who are now in college are still in touch with their mentors, Byer says.
LIFT also is in need of clothing donations for its students, particularly coats, hats and scarves in the winter.
Most important, however, are monetary donations to fund LIFT and other free programming aimed at underserved shelters and schools throughout New York City. The NYTB's quarterly "breakfast and ballet" event welcomes disadvantaged children and their parents for a hot meal, followed by a ballet performance and a discussion with the dancers and crew. The children learn about all aspects of the theater, but the program also gives them an even rarer opportunity — a chance to spend a day out with their families.
"The kids get so excited because it's not something that's in their lives," Byer says.