When the 30 Juilliard students/neophyte builders arrived at 1839 Allen Street in New Orleans at 7:30 on a March Tuesday morning, there was little more than a concrete foundation at the site. By 3:15 the following Thursday afternoon, a floor, a staircase, and at least a dozen walls had been erected. Some of the work was backbreaking, especially for people like me who are much more used to lifting ballpoint pens than sledgehammers. But all the soreness was worth it to see the gratitude on the faces of the family that will one day call the house home.
This was the fifth year that Juilliard has sponsored ARTreach New Orleans, a spring break trip to the Big Easy during which students work with Habitat for Humanity and lead outreach programs. The notoriously jam-packed and sleepless week began on a Saturday with time for a little sightseeing and a lot of planning (beignets and café au lait were essential parts of this stage).
On Monday, we worked with students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a state-sponsored high school offering vocational programs in the arts, where I led a playwriting workshop for 11 theater students. And then it was time to start building. “I love seeing the tangible work we accomplish in three days, knowing that a family will have a new start in a new home literally built with love and joy,” said Sabrina Tanbara, the director of student affairs and an integral part of the New Orleans project since its inception.
After leaving the Habitat site, we went to the Dryades Y.M.C.A. to work with students from third grade through high school. This was the fifth time the team has partnered with this organization, and each year the students seem to display more creativity, spirit, and resilience than the year before. In fact, many of the talents that we Juilliard students work so tirelessly to cultivate seem innate in these youngsters. Among the middle schoolers I worked with there were two flag-twirlers, two tap dancers, and a girl who did an unexpected and flawless Nicki Minaj impression.
But for all the similarities to other years, this year also marked a shift. “The focus of the project is not just to share our talents and experiences for a single short-lived week, but to continue and further the project through strengthened partnerships to return to year after year,” said Yvonne Chen, a third-year pianist and one of this year’s project coordinators. “The trip has moved from having a disaster-relief focus to an empowerment vision,” Tanbara elaborated. “We’re seeking more and more stability in our relationships with arts organizations to bring the teaching element of our mission to its fullest potential.”
The strength of this growing relationship became evident on our last day, when we were presented with the key to the city and each member of the team received a proclamation from the New Orleans City Council in recognition of our continued efforts. As for the future of the project, I won’t be there to witness it, since I graduate in May. But if this year’s slogan, “Art empowers,” is any indication, the personal and artistic exchange we undertake in this great American city will strengthen us for years to come.