Metro Mama & Metro Baby

By Catherine Wayland

Here we are at the base of the foothill together. The air is turning towards September’s wonderful fall breezes. It’s just 28 days to go until Brody arrives. How are you doing? I for one feel as though I am dragging a 300-pound gorilla along the sidewalk from the end of a chain that is attached to my uterus. Ha! Emotionally and spiritually however, my heart fills thinking about the beautiful baby that is on his way to us. Speaking about hearts, love and children, there’s a wonderful organization here in the city, called Free Arts for Abused Children of NYC (www.freeartsnyc.org).

All of us; men, women, singles, and married folk can feel compassion towards children everywhere who are struggling to find their place in the world. That’s why so many of us volunteer. Free Arts for Abused Children is an organization that has a mission. One that I’m proud to be a part of, you see I also volunteer there. It doesn’t want a single child that is born to this world, and especially in our own neighborhood of New York City to be to be forgotten.

Did you know that in a single calendar year, approximately 90,000 children have been involved in over 56,000 officially reported cases of abuse and neglect in our Manhattan and its 5 boroughs? Did you also know that 97% of individuals institutionalized for violent crimes were themselves abused as children?* That is terrible and tragic. Organizations like Free Arts for Abused Children-NYC breathe hope into those statistics. There can be a break in the cycle of abuse and violence. Did you know that at-risk students who participate in after-school arts programs show higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, assume leadership roles and improve overall school performance? Did you also know that children in mentored relationships are:

- 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs
- 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school
- More trusting of their parents/guardians and less likely to lie to them**

Free Arts NYC is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the healing powers of the arts into the lives of abused, neglected and at-risk children and their families. I first came into contact with this magical group of people through an introduction by a friend to Corinne Arles, their Program Director, and now a mama to her own 16 month old, Lilianna. Corinne spoke of Free Arts with such passion and sparkle, that I, who was trying to get pregnant at the time, knew this was to be my fertile connection to the true spirit of motherhood and promptly became a volunteer.

That was back in 2000. Free Arts NYC has been around since 1997 – driven, I believe solely in those beginning years, by the passion and hearts of such people as Corinne and the Executive Director, Liz Hopfan. When I call the office now, I get any number of the warmhearted staff members on the phone. Back in those days, it was mainly Liz and Corinne, working tirelessly till all crazy hours. Then a third staff member, and then a fourth. The mission and structure of the organization remain constant.

Modeled after an organization in Los Angeles, which was founded over twenty years ago, it works from a low overhead, with a dedicated staff that manages a sizeable population of trained volunteers. To date, Free Arts NYC has screened, trained and placed over 3,000 volunteers. Volunteer retention rate is over 80%, meaning the majority of volunteers who complete one program commitment return to undertake a new one. These Free Arts volunteers through various mediums of painting, dance, drama, writing, music, sculpture, photography and other creative outlets, assist in helping children and their families express themselves. They help them gain self-confidence and develop positive methods of communication. Additional affiliates meet regularly to share ideas, program materials, and make recommendations for improving quality of services.

The staff of Free Arts NYC are the wizards behind this awe-inspiring machine of love. For me as a volunteer, they made it easy. After my screening and training, I was able to pick from a number of Free Arts Days (FAD) available over the upcoming weeks in the various 5 boroughs. Free Arts activities go directly to the children in need. They take place on-site at domestic violence shelters, foster care clinics, group homes, hospitals, community centers and homeless shelters throughout New York City. All programs are provided at no expense to the collaborating agencies, children, families or volunteers.

I arrived on my scheduled day and was assigned to a creative station making masks with the children. The children would loop around the many stations, laughing, making masks, musical instruments, kites with streamers, etc. They were entertained by a wonderful group of peers and mentors who danced and sang for them. They ate, and played like carefree children. All I remember was the smiles and love. That day felt like a gift to me instead of a gift to the children. I was delighted in being able to participate in that level of joy and creativity. For the children who ran around that day with food smeared on their faces and glue on their fingers, this was a crack in the wall of despair, it was their hope.

Free Arts NYC is of course funded by a generous family of sponsors that include such corporate entities as Goldman Sachs, ABC/Disney, and Bloomingdales. Besides Free Arts Days (FAD), it has Weekly Mentor Programs, Parent-Child Programs (PACT), and many special events including watching a Broadway show. Imagine the dreams inspired by a viewing of the award-winning Lion King performed in Times Square under all the dazzle of mid-town. Once a year, Free Arts NYC holds a fund-raising event where one-of-a-kind, Polaroid artwork is auctioned off to benefit the Free Arts NYC children. This year it was held at Phillips de Pury & Co. Auction house on May 24. Artists who participate include Julian Schnabel, William Wegman and Lou Reed. They had a live and silent auction, filled with fantasy items, including trips to exotic places. It was a star studded event with the likes of Sean Penn and Donna Karan. This year the event made over $300,000.

Bravo, Free Arts, bravo. Although I have been a busy mama lately and not able to volunteer, I thank God for you every time I say my prayers. My own child plays on the streets of New York every day. Because of you, there is one more hope-filled child to run and hug and swing with his/her pals Jax, and Brody. Amen, amen.

*Statistics compiled from the NYC Administration for Children’s Services and the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.

**Statistics compiled from: President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, “Living the Arts Through Language and Learning”, The National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, “Involvement in the Arts and Success in Secondary Schools”.

Originally published September 2004
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