“The LIFT program serves children from New York’s homeless shelters,” explains Steven Melendez, the director of LIFT, which is part of New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB). “We use ballet to build discipline and responsibility and help the children earn self-respect. Some even become accomplished classical dancers.”
"Extend your love to others & watch it grow" ... Mentoring Children
In addition to ballet academy scholarships, LIFT provides mentoring, tutoring, medical care, and clothing. It also offers touring opportunities with NYTB, which serves special communities, such as Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in upper Manhattan, where they perform every year for children and staff.
Tailoring the Program ... LIFT began in 1989 as a pilot workshop at the Vineyard Theatre in Lower Manhattan. “The greatest lesson we’ve learned is that there isn’t one solution for every child. So the program varies year to year based on the needs of the specific children. Recently, we’ve seen a great need for academic tutors for many of the children who are having a tough time in school. Some years the biggest problem was simply getting the kids to the ballet classes, so we had volunteers shuttle them to and from home, school, and ballet.”
Many of the children come from broken homes or environments without strong adult leadership, “so we find mentors willing to provide a long-term relationship with the students as they find their way into adulthood.” Steven also acknowledges the challenging funding climate for non-profits. “We are always grateful to our principal funders, State Street, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, but depending on other funders, our budget can change from year to year. Some years we have as many as 35 children for a 39 week academic year plus a month of summer classes. Other years it has been as few as 20 children for only 30 weeks.”
National Recognition & A Courageous Story ... The program has always been exemplary, praised in The New York Times and other local papers and on local television. The LIFT Study Program also was cited by the White House and The National Endowment for the Arts as a model national program.
“LIFT is close to my heart because I was a student of LIFT,” says Steven. “I was homeless for three years from the time I was seven years old, and the scholarship I received from New York Theatre Ballet changed my life. Besides being the current director of the LIFT program, I’m also a Principal Dancer with NYTB. I’ve had opportunities I never would have had if I didn’t go through the program.”
Steven has traveled around the world, living in South America for a year while working with a ballet company there and in Eastern Europe for three years while working with another ballet company. “As I give this interview I am in Japan for two weeks teaching a summer workshop. None of this would have been possible if I had experienced the life that is far too common for young minority men growing up homeless in the South Bronx.
“LIFT gave me a way out and there isn't anything I wouldn’t do to offer that opportunity to another child looking for it.”
A Helping Hand ... “Volunteering for LIFT is simple,” says Steven. “Call New York Theatre Ballet, meet with me, and let’s find something that can work. Tutors and mentors are the big needs right now, but as we have learned over the last 20-plus years, specific children need specific guidance and so it is difficult to predict what the solution is before we know the problem. Male mentors are especially valuable and a couple interested in mentoring a child together is even more amazing. More than anything else, the children need sustained attention in a stable, caring environment.”
Steven introduces us to volunteer Amanda Lynch. “Working with LIFT is incredibly rewarding,” says Amanda. “I was lucky enough to spend two years dancing with NYTB, and one important part of the company's mission is to make the arts accessible. I love how this mission extends also to the Ballet School through the LIFT program. After graduating from Harvard, I was excited when the opportunity arose to tutor a bright LIFT student, Victor, a few days a week in the subjects that were tougher for him. Just a few hours a week made a difference.
“In the LIFT program you encounter exceptionally talented, creative students who are very motivated in at least one aspect of their lives.
“The curiosity and perspective that allow them to succeed in their dance education, and the discipline that ballet classes require, make them a particularly inspiring bunch. The joint pleasure of seeing your student's grades improve while you watch them succeed in ballet class, and even in some of NYTB’s productions, is very moving.”
Though her significant other, Brandon, was deployed throughout much of her participation in the LIFT program, “it would be a great activity to be involved in together. Because LIFT aims to cultivate well-rounded, confident youth, the children involved can really benefit from a broad base of support.
“The young men, especially, can benefit from male mentorship and exposure to a wide variety of potential paths in life. I love seeing how dance classes broaden the horizons for these young people, but I also appreciate LIFT’s practical approach, which connects at-risk young people to role models across the spectrum, both in professional and family life.”
LIFT Community Service Program, 212.679.0401, nytb.org