September 20, 2011 — Though it's less than a mile from the Westhaven neighborhood to the University of Virginia's Lawn, many of the children who live there have never set foot on Grounds, even for a student play or free concert, according to professor Bonnie Gordon.
"People talk a lot about the achievement gap, which is very real, but even in a place like Charlottesville there can also be a big gap in terms of what cultural experiences children have," she said.
Gordon, a music professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, is using a grant bestowed Saturday by the Mead Endowment to create a program that pairs undergraduates with children from Westhaven for a series of concerts and cultural events throughout the year.
Ten U.Va. students will each pair with a third- or fourth-grade child, and the group will attend a series of eight events on Grounds and beyond, ranging from free concerts on the Downtown Mall to a performance by the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra. They might even attend a rock concert, Gordon said, if she can find one that starts early enough and is appropriate for young ears.
"I want to give them an opportunity to see that there are all these kinds of cultural venues, and that a lot of them are free," Gordon said.
Having the undergraduate student pair up with a specific child creates a sort of mentoring relationship, Gordon said. Before each event, she and the U.Va. students will talk to the children about what they are going to see, telling them a little about the music form, its history and the proper audience etiquette.
"The idea is that if you take them to an orchestra performance, you want to give the children an idea of what an orchestra is," she said. "The last thing you want to do is have these kids go and make them feel uncomfortable."
Clarissa Folley, coordinator of the Westhaven Afterschool Program, said such events are valuable experiences for the children.
"I think it's a great idea to have the children get some exposure to the events at U.Va. that they otherwise probably wouldn't attend," Folley said. "I also think that it helps them to know, 'I can go here. This is something that is obtainable for me.' It gives them some excitement about the future to think they can accomplish that."
Each year, the Mead Endowment funds faculty members' projects to continue the U.Va. tradition of fostering close student-faculty relationships, a tradition exemplified by music professor emeritus Ernest "Boots" Mead, for whom the endowment is named.
The undergraduate students involved in Gordon's program will be drawn from across the University – not just the music department – and will get a chance to help introduce a group of local children to the variety of cultural and artistic offerings the University and Charlottesville communities provide, Gordon said.
"My hope is that the more people we bring with us, the more people will want to do it," she said.
Gordon will invite children from Westhaven based on the recommendations of their teachers, she said.
This isn't Gordon's first experience volunteering in the Westhaven community. Her two children attend Burnley-Moran Elementary School – the same school the Westhaven children attend – and she is active in the Westhaven Afterschool Program, organizing arts activities.
Last year, she and others put together several trips to Grounds for Westhaven students and other children from Burnley-Moran, including a visit to a Cavalier Marching Band practice and a trip for 14 young girls to see a student opera.
"They loved it," she said of the students who attended the opera. "They were completely into it in that little kid, mouth-open way. They were really fascinated by the orchestra that played. "
Many of the kids who go on such trips are academically gifted and might one day find themselves college students, she said. For those children, acclimation to the university world is important, even at a young age.
"Many affluent children know and expect that they will go to college, and that they'll go to a college that looks something like this one," Gordon said. "I think the idea of normalizing the college world for other children is important. And I also think some of the kids out there are extremely academically gifted and will end up at a place like U.Va., where many students have been to an orchestra performance and know what Beethoven's Fifth sounds like. And I hope they will too."