May 25, 2012 — On a recent evening, University of Virginia music professor Bonnie Gordon watched a handful of local children select the instruments they will play in school band next year.
She was there with Lauren Hauser, a doctoral student in English, and Sarad Davenport, the Charlottesville director of City of Promise, a community education program. Just a couple of months earlier, Gordon had taken some of the kids for their first visit to the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra's Musical Instrument Petting Zoo and helped familiarize them with those same instruments.
"It was a really nice thing to see," Hauser said.. "In some cases, they were familiar with the instruments because of the symphony event we'd gone to."
That trip capped the successful first year of a pilot music outreach program that brought children from Charlottesville's low-income families together with U.Va. undergraduates to attend arts events. Gordon, a music professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, organized the program with the help of a Mead Endowment grant designed to facilitate interactions among faculty and students.
During the course of the year, she took 18 area third- and fourth-grade children and 18 U.Va. students to a series of eight events, including the symphony performance, a rehearsal of choreographer Bill T. Jones's dance company, a tour of the U.Va. Art Museum, and a Shakespeare play at Blackfriars in Staunton.
The idea was to expose area children to a wealth of free and inexpensive area arts events that they might not otherwise have been aware of, while giving U.Va. students a chance to interact with the local community and with a professor outside of class, Gordon said.
"A lot of these children had never been to U.Va. before, despite the fact that they live nearby," Gordon said. "We wanted to show them the college environment and give them a sense that this is something they could be a part of."
Emily Peters, who just graduated with a degree in psychology, said the outreach program was a great opportunity for the U.Va. students who participated, and that it opened her eyes to a part of the Charlottesville community she wasn't aware of.
"I loved every minute of it," said Peters, who also began volunteering in the after-school program at Westhaven. "It became a big part of my life in my fourth year in college, because it was something I was so passionate about."
Peters also helped coordinate the U.Va. student volunteers, and said it drew together students from diverse backgrounds. She used the experience as the basis of her final practicum project for her leadership minor in the McIntire School of Commerce.
Rachel Savoy is a teacher at Charlottesville's Burley-Moran Elementary School who recently graduated from U.Va. with both undergraduate and master's degrees from the Curry School of Education. She said the program expanded the perspectives of the students who participated and gave them a valuable exposure to the local arts scene.
"Students can't learn to appreciate art or participate in it fully unless they are exposed to it," Savoy said. "That sense of appreciation is a skill we hone throughout the program – they don't always have to personally love a certain style or medium of art, but they can respect it and appreciate the work that goes into it. It enriches and deepens their world."
The events were often paired with learning exercises. After the children visited the art museum, they got a chance to work on their own collages. After seeing a photography exhibit at The Bridge, a local gallery, they talked about photography.
Beyond the artistic benefits, just getting the children on Grounds seemed to be a valuable experience, Gordon said. One of their most popular stops was a University dining hall, where the kids were fascinated by the bustle of activity around them.
Gordon said she hopes to continue the program, and is looking for a funding source and for help facilitating the logistics of future trips. Though overall costs are low, she hopes to have someone to help secure tickets for events and coordinate issues such as transportation and parental permission.
"I really hope we can keep doing it," she said. "This is a very easy way to give something back to the community."
– by Rob Seal