After school drama class is precisely what Juan Carlos Salinas’s second and fifth grade students look forward to most come weekday mornings.
“I like how he shows us how to act and he shows us that we should believe in ourselves,” says fifth grader Katherine Lopez.
Salinas is a teaching artist at Sing For Hope, a nonprofit organization exposing underserved communities to the arts throughout New York City.
As a positive escape, Salinas and the young thespians explore themes like immigration and bullying, and they work on self-confidence through numerous drills in class.
“We use the arts to help the kids grow, cultivate an understanding of the world and their surroundings; and show them how to become better people through the arts and how to grow their own artistic talents,” says Salinas.
Those ideas were precisely what laid the framework down when Sing For Hope first came to be.
Then a graduate student at the Julliard School of Music, soprano opera singer Camille Zamora and her close friend Monica Yunus, also a soprano, identified a need for a program that would afford professional artists an opportunity to get involved and give back to the community.
Now, six years later, and with over 1,000 volunteer artists from all artistic disciplines – professionals ranging from musical theater actors to photographers, to makeup artists and musical directors, dancers, writers, radio personalities and even magicians — the organization is leaving a lasting footprint on the communities it serves.
“We said, ‘OK, let’s really create an artist’s peace corps. Let’s pull together a group of volunteers who work in the arts and bring them to places that don’t have access,’” says Zamora. “’Let’s bring these artists to those kids and give them a chance. Let’s say to them: ‘This is yours, also.’”
A Houston, Texas native, Zamora, who grew up listening to her father play the Spanish guitar and dreaming of life in the big city, says the concept was simple: Tap into New York City’s pool of talent and make art available to all at absolutely no cost.
Stephanie Martinez is the nonprofit’s Art U! Program Coordinator, and is responsible for forging the alliances with the schools the organization serves.
“Part of our success is also knowing our limitations, and we want to do things to the best of our abilities,” says Martinez.
A native Miamian of Cuban parents, Martinez also leads the Sing For Hope Youth Chorus twice a week. A new initiative this year, the chorus is open to all high school students in the New York City area, with audition sign-ups made available online.
“It’s not just about teaching the art form. To us it doesn’t matter if a child is a great singer, what’s important is that we’re using the arts as an outlet,” says Martinez. “This is a way of giving these young people a voice and to let them know they deserve to be heard.”
This past year, Sing For Hope enjoyed a presence at eight different locations around New York City, offering year-long school programs aside from bedside concerts at local hospitals and several other community-based programs, like the Sing for Hope’s Pop-Up Pianos initiative.
Come each summer, through this program donated, restored pianos are placed throughout New York City open spaces and used for concerts or for anyone to just come and play. The pianos are then donated to schools and community centers – helping to revitalize these entire communities, says Zamora.
“The arts can be transformative,” she adds. “Ninety-nine percent of our students are children of color, they’re dealing with difficult issues of racism and of poverty and of lack of educational opportunity, and for us to bring art to them…and say: ‘This is a way for you to envision a different future, a better future. It’s a very palpable and powerful thing.”
Currently, the organization reaches as many as 400 patients and caregivers and more than 500 under-resourced students in the 8-18 age range in a given week, but Zamora guesstimates that this is only the beginning.
In the meantime, and back at one of Salinas’s Brooklyn after-school drama classes, the hard work continues.
“Sing for Hope is important because it does get the kids to focus on the world at large and say: “If I want to change something in the world, I can do that. It’s not something that’s daunting or big…and even if I don’t end poverty, I can do something about poverty. I may not be able to end bullying but I can do something to help reduce it,” says Salinas.