A group of 40 students aged six to 19, several of whom attend Scarsdale schools, traveled to Puerto Rico in early August to provide relief for parts of the country still in need two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
The kids spent a week in the rural Quinta Tranquila mountains and later San Juan as part of the Westchester-based arts education program Young At Art. In partnership with the Episcopal Dioceses of New York and Puerto Rico, the group was able to spend time in the mountains installing water purification systems and solar panels and mentoring local children with arts education workshops. At the end of their time in the mountains, the group visited San Juan to perform a charity concert alongside former Yankees center fielder and jazz guitarist Bernie Williams.
Sharyn Pirtle, founder and director of Young At Art, pioneered the program to use music and other art forms to bring different groups of people together, a purpose she said was well served by this trip. She has worked to maintain a service component in the group since its creation 15 years ago.
“I grew up going to a really robust arts program that was created in Texas in 1976 to integrate the schools,” said Pirtle. “[In] a lot of places in the South, although Brown v. Board was on the books, people were dragging their feet on it. So there was a point in time in the ’70s where it’s like, enough is enough and we’re going to try this approach. So my little elementary school started with a Suzuki violin program that was really, really good. And the kids came from all over. I never knew any different and it really changed my life.”
When her career took her away from Texas, however, Pirtle noticed wide gaps in arts education in school districts around the country and saw arts programs being the first to go when budget issues arose. When she came to Westchester, she was alarmed by the gaps in arts education in some of the less privileged school districts in the area.
“The mission really is to serve all kids and to bring them together, which I think creates better art anyway because it’s teaching them to be tolerant of others and to mix together and be the bridge,” said Pirtle.
Young At Art has served more than 800 children from more than 40 Westchester area schools, including after-school programs in multiple school districts and education in musical theater, vocal performance, instrumental studies, rock band and jazz studies, and dance. Pirtle said her goal has always been to engage students from multiple backgrounds and Young At Art supports nearly 35% of its students through need-based scholarships.
The trip to Puerto Rico came about to reflect themes of service and inclusivity that Pirtle has kept at the forefront of the Young At Art program. “Ever since its inception, I’ve been bringing the kids to sing at homeless shelters. I’ve been taking them to the United Nations. We weave that into our curriculum,” said Pirtle. “About a year ago, I created an ensemble that was to be a touring ensemble to do the same thing. And this opportunity came up through the Episcopal Diocese to provide hurricane relief to small villages in Puerto Rico that are still suffering from damage from [Hurricane Maria] two years ago.”
The students’ tour in Puerto Rico centered around interacting with the communities in which they worked not only through building physical resources and mentoring youth, but sharing their music as they rehearsed and performed.
Scarsdale High School sophomore JanMaria DeGuia, 14, said the trip was full of moments and experiences she will remember for the rest of her life.
“I got to work with children in the community and I’m lucky enough to be able to speak Spanish, so that helped me interact with them,” said DeGuia. “I was drawing with them all the time and others were making bracelets and I was running around the courtyard with them and we were teaching them how to sing some songs and play the piano … It was just really fun.”
“I feel really strongly that the youth are our future and that we have to give them power with compassion and that art is going to heal the world,” said Pirtle. She also said while the group was able to give to the community, “the gifts were almost greater to the teens, because I think for them to be without cellphones, without video games, without the stress that America is … I think every teen needs that.”
After coming down from the mountains and meeting up with Williams in San Juan, the group performed a series of choral pieces that ranged from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to gospel classics and “This is Me” from the 2017 movie “The Greatest Showman.”
“It was really great, just seeing the audience filled with joy and seeing the impact we made on the community,” said DeGuia. “I could not describe to you how memorable these hours I’ve spent with them have been. Honestly, this is stuff that I’ll remember for years to come.”
DeGuia said the trip taught her to feel fortunate for being able to live her life the way she does. She also said working in different communities and connecting to the people made it easier for her to step into the shoes of others and try to understand their lifestyle.
“I think the biggest lesson learned is about community and how you can come together and how you can make a difference,” said Pirtle. “Even as a 16-year-old kid living in Westchester.”