By Mary Rickard
The New Orleans Times-Picayune
Nathan Major, 13, and Sheldon Lewis, 10, gained an understanding of quarter notes through rhythmic clapping exercises as they sat in the choir section of St. Anna's Episcopal Church on Esplanade Avenue. Hand gestures reinforce the beats, explained Darryl Durham, program director for Anna's Arts for Kids.
"Feel the vibration in your voice and memorize the feeling," he instructed.
In the community room next door, another group of youngsters experimented with creative writing under the tutelage of Delia Nakayama, while a third cluster of youngsters on the second floor practiced fingering chords on the guitar. Their teacher, Rebecca Green, learned guitar from her parents, professional folk musicians.
In the church courtyard, several girls and boys dressed in karate uniforms practiced kicking in front of Alvin Hewitt Jr., head instructor at Peace Keeper Martial Arts School.
"I use the ethics and honor codes from martial arts to put troubled youth on the right track," said Hewitt, a former history teacher who says socioeconomic issues must be addressed at the local level through community involvement.
Thirty children, ages 4 to 14, are the first participants in Anna's Arts for Kids, an after-school program designed to inspire change through academic development, exposure to the arts, community service and environmental awareness. But Durham said his ultimate objective is to impart respect and self-discipline. A handwritten, cardboard sign displays a dozen rules the children wrote themselves. Citations are given when the rules are broken. Children learn they can make decisions, but that there are also consequences, Durham said.
"We want the least-loved kids, the hardest to deal with and the ones most at risk," said the Rev. Bill Terry, St. Anna's vicar.
"Since 2007, St. Anna's has been recognized as the voice for the victims of violence," Terry said. A sign on the front of the church names every homicide victim in New Orleans, his or her age and date killed. "The engine is to humanize the victims of violence by naming them," he said.
This year, Terry wanted to take the next step in violence prevention. "If I want to get kids off the streets and get them to stop killing each other, I've got to give them a future and self-esteem," he said.
A member of the congregation and former director of the Harlem School of the Arts, Durham brought Terry the concept of Anna's Arts for Kids. With a modest $65,000 budget, the program provides homework assistance in addition to lessons in voice, guitar, martial arts, folk dance and creative writing to kids living in the surrounding areas. An anonymous donor quickly helped fund the program.
"Taking kids and helping them to express themselves profoundly can't be a bad thing," Terry said. "We're teaching them how to express themselves through poetry instead of trying to get respect with a gun," he said.
The children are carpooled at 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday afternoons and on Saturday mornings from their Mid-City and Treme homes. Durham and Assistant Director Julio Rojas make phone calls to coordinate rides.
Patsy Soto said her daughter, Victoria, enjoys the program so much that she won't miss a day. Victoria's math grades have improved through the tutoring.
"I want to bring them a happy moment," said Rojas, who teaches Latino folk dancing. "The kids love it," he said. One child showed up four times during the recent spring break.
Staff members prepare dinner and a healthy snack four days a week so the children are ready and able to learn. "We want to make sure they have the proper food to have energy to last an extended day," Durham said.
During the program, the children get exposure to arts they haven't had, Durham said. The New Orleans Musicians Foundation provided a $12,000 grant to allow guest artists to perform.
As a result, Shanté Rickmon, 14, has decided she'll become a music producer. She's planning to attend the summer media arts program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and has applied to Tulane's Upward Bound Program.
Nathan is learning guitar, but his real interest is violin. He said his grandmother listens to Cajun music, which has "the flavor of Louisiana" and makes him want to dance.
St. Anna's will collaborate with Christ Church Cathedral for a five-week summer session, starting June 21. Sixty children from Treme, Mid-City and Central City have already registered. Five minimally paid art instructors and a half-dozen volunteer tutors run the program with the help of parents, who carpool and serve meals.
Transportation is the program's most pressing problem, Durham said. A 25-passenger bus would help accommodate more children.
Durham said the children here have not had the same early exposure to the arts as those he taught in Harlem.
"My goal is to get the kids to soar academically, socially and culturally," he said.