By Amy White Graves, founder of Brooklyn Children’s Theatre. The nonprofit serves 1,300 children a year in Brooklyn.
New York City is facing a homelessness crisis and women and children are bearing the brunt of it. Almost 60,000 people currently live in city homeless shelters, and approximately 70 percent are families with children.
Homeless families are no different than yours or mine, other than the difficult circumstances they’re facing today. Maybe they lost a job, faced eviction from a home or suffered as a survivor of domestic violence and needed to leave a dangerous living situation. There are myriad reasons why a family is forced to move into a homeless shelter, but in nearly every case, it is an absolute last resort for them.
At Brooklyn Children’s Theatre (BCT), we have a golden opportunity to do our part to combat the crisis by welcoming the families who will live at the two newly proposed homeless shelters on Fourth Avenue to the Park Slope community. I have seen firsthand how being able to access the free services that Park Slope has to offer can better the lives of families experiencing homelessness and potentially put them on the path to stability.
Six years ago, a woman called me from a homeless shelter to ask for a scholarship for her 10-year-old daughter to attend BCT, the program that I run. The woman was a single parent who suffered from herniated and slipped discs. She wasn’t able to hold down a job because she was in constant pain and couldn’t stand for any significant length of time.
Meanwhile, her daughter was on the honor roll at her school and showed tremendous potential. The mom knew that a theatre program could be a great asset for her daughter, providing her with a supportive community and helping to build her confidence.
Her daughter attended our program in the fall. She was quiet, thoughtful, worked hard and had a lovely singing voice. In the winter, the girl took our audition workshop class where we coached her on monologues and songs for middle school auditions. And then she tried out for and received a coveted spot at the Mark Twain middle school for acting.
Over the past four years, BCT’s OASIS program has provided nearly 400 musical theatre scholarships to children living in family shelters. Homeless kids learn to dance and sing alongside students from all over the borough. Onstage, in their costumes and stage makeup, no one knows or cares which kids live in a shelter or in a mansion. They are all up there together, Brooklyn’s talented future, singing their hearts out.
We mostly work with families in a shelter in East Flatbush, a neighborhood with limited resources for families. The public transportation is sparse, the zoned schools are struggling and the options for healthy food are few and far between. I know that there are some incredible shelters and programs in these areas, but the fact is that Park Slope offers unparalleled access to resources and enrichment opportunities, like free after school programs for children of all ages, that other neighborhoods do not.
By coming to Park Slope, the children become part of a community of kids and parents that they might not normally encounter. And the way that the Park Slope community has come together over the past few years to support these students has been truly inspiring.
Teaching artists have coached homeless students on their school auditions. Photographers have donated headshot sessions. Volunteers have offered free tutoring. Fellow BCT families have sought out and fulfilled Christmas wish lists, donated clothes and offered school supplies. Through BCT, students living in shelter have found support in high school theater programs – and a handful of our first OASIS kids are now in college.
That is why I am thrilled that two family shelters are opening in Park Slope.
Every family, no matter their economic circumstances, wants what’s best for their children. We must not forget that nearly 12,000 homeless New Yorkers are children under the age of six. Homeless families who have access to better resources – healthier food choices, abundant public transportation, excellent public schools – have a chance to break the cycle of poverty. Living in Park Slope can give them a huge leg up.
Our community at Brooklyn Children’s Theatre is thrilled to welcome the new families in the Fourth Avenue shelters. We hope you’ll join us in doing what we can to help.
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