Last Monday at around 9 a.m., roughly 250 Yalies shuffled out of the brisk morning air and into Dwight Chapel to register for the annual MLK Day of Service. After a fair amount of encouragement from a friend, I had tagged along.
The inside of the church was bustling with students and administrators. The floor was littered with an amalgam of lunch foods, apples, oranges, sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, bottled water and so on. Students, bundled in every type of fleece-lined clothing one can imagine, wandered from station to station filling plastic bags with apples, oranges, potato chips, cookies and so on. Groups of freshman gossiped in the corner, while a few lone, bearded upperclassman wandered between the crowds, abandoned by their still-sleeping friends.
Thankfully my pals aren’t lazy — at least not the four I signed up with. The basic premise of the Day of Service is for Yalies to sign up and volunteer for several hours at any of a number of community centers or charitable organizations. My friends and I wanted to give back, which is the mission for the Day of Service, but we also wanted to have a good time, so we devised a foolproof plan: we would all arrive at the chapel early, and sign up to volunteer at the same organization.
Unfortunately, I arrived late. I walked up to one of my buddies, who told me they had signed up for the soup kitchen and that I needed to go register. The registration desk sat at the far end of the chapel, and I moseyed over and got in line. Then the unique cranial function (or lack thereof) that accompanies the early morning kicked in. As a result, I managed to sign up for the wrong organization. An excellent first note of the day. Thankfully, though, the notes improved as the day went on.
* * *
Around 30 minutes later, five of us arrived at a one-room music school, tucked off Whalley Avenue, that looked as if it was refurbished from an old, retired garage. The blue letters over the windows read “Music Haven.”
Just after we reached the parking lot, a silver sedan pulled in. A young, amiable-looking man stepped out, holding a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and a bag of paintbrushes. This, I would later learn, was Greg Tompkins: resident musician and volunteer coordinator at Music Haven, the second violinist in the organization’s string quartet, a tutor of fourteen students, and our boss for the day.
After we introduced ourselves, Greg brought us into the giant classroom and pointed at the walls and bathroom that needed painting. He wanted one giant wall a burnt mustard, the other wall white, and the bathroom sunflower yellow. We nodded and got to work.
First we laid down plastic sheets beneath areas that needed painting, moved tables and dressers, stripped the walls of photographs and hangers, and made a quick run to the Family Dollar for sandpaper and extra brushes. After the setup was done, the job went by in a whir of sanding, spackling, dusting and painting. All the while, the various musicians and students bustled in and out of the classroom, in the hectic pre-show preparation for their Martin Luther King Jr. Day Concert, which was to take place later that day. We ignored the tuning of violins and shuffling of sheet music, and continued to work. In fact, it wasn’t until the afternoon, during our lunch break, that Tompkins explained the details of the organization we were helping out.
Music Haven is a community-based, tuition-free organization that provides instruments and lessons for elementary through high school students from the Newhallville, The Hill, Dixwell, Fairhaven, West Rock and Dwight neighborhoods. The teachers are all performing musicians, who play together in a string quartet.
The tuition-free model is based on that of Community Music Works in Providence, Rhode Island, and Music Haven has a sister organization in Boston called musiConnects, but beyond those three, no other organization in the country follows this model.
Tina Lee Hadari MUS ’04 founded the organization in 2006 to address a dual need: local kids had few options available for musical education, and artists wanted to give back.
“The summer before I got here in 2006, there had been a whole wave of crime committed by teenagers in the communities,” Hadari says. “A lot of people were saying that there were no opportunities for them to engage in positive learning outside school.”
By founding Music Haven, Hadari hoped to provide such an opportunity. When the program opened in 2006, it enrolled 24 students. Today there are 80. Hadari describes the organization’s progress as “slow and steady,” and attributes it to the “highly rigorous” educational program and great individual engagement with the students.
Music Haven’s growth hasn’t gone unnoticed: Hadari describes the response to it as overwhelmingly positive. It has been named by the President’s Committee of Arts and Humanities as one of the top 50 after-school programs in the country, and just this past Friday, Music Haven received the Champion in Actions Award from Citizens Bank.
But as a non-profit program that doesn’t charge its students tuition, Music Haven can’t get by on its own. It relies on donations and volunteers to keep the operation afloat. And when volunteers free up funding that can go towards Music Haven’s mission, donations can be easier to come by.
“When you’re a non-profit you want as much of your funding as possible to go to what your service is,” Tompkins says, “partially because that’s what brings more donors on board — you can show that most of your funding goes to what they want to be funding.”
In other words, small acts — like painting a wall — might have an actual impact on the lives of Music Haven students.
Students like Noel Mitchell. Mitchell, 15 years old, is a freshmen at Wilbur Cross High School and a student at Music Haven. He’s been involved with the organization since elementary school and now, in addition to his violin classes, he works as Hadari’s assistant after school. I asked what Music Haven has meant to him.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for Music Haven,” he replied. “I wouldn’t be able to travel and to play violin.”
* * *
But Music Haven is just one of a number of organizations Yalies volunteered at on MLK Day. The roughly 250 students who signed up — double the previous year’s number — went on to volunteer at 25 sites around New Haven, from public park clean-ups to the Jewish Community Center to neighborhood housing services. Alec Hoeschel ’17, community service chair on the Yale Student-Athlete College Council and the friend that got me to volunteer last Monday, worked at a local soup kitchen, where he cleaned out the pantry and helped organize and shelve their inventory.
Akintunde Ahmad ’18 worked with the Black Men’s Union at a local middle school. There, he and other members put on workshops to help kids with the college process, or with transitions to middle or high school.
Both Hoeschel and Ahmad found personal value in their experiences on MLK Day.
Ahmad, who is from Oakland, California, says his background makes volunteerism particularly important to him.
“It’s important to remember where you came from,” he says. “Me personally, I couldn’t have been in the position that I am today if it hadn’t been for people giving back time.”
Hoeschel says he feels it’s important to give back, and the hundreds who made their way to Dwight Hall at 9 a.m. on a day off suggest that he’s not the only one. Part of that turnout was due to Hoeschel’s own work: his influence helped get the Student-Athlete Council involved with the Day of Service, which was one of the main reasons for this year’s marked increase in turnout.
“It was great to see everyone from all the different groups come together on this special day and volunteer for the community,” he says.
Briana Burroughs ’17, who as the Institutional Service Coordinator at Dwight Hall was responsible for organizing the Day of Service, says she loves seeing Yalies who feel compelled to give back to the city around them.
“People want to come in and sign up,” she says. “It’s exciting for people to think their impact can be so great or so big in one day.”
* * *
Back at Music Haven on Monday, the tarps were wrapped and thrown away, paint cans hammered shut, and the sunflower and mustard yellow walls had begun to dry. All five of us stood in front of the bright walls, scratching our heads and hoping our limited painting abilities had proved up to the task.
I broke from the huddle and went to wash my paint-stained hands in the bathroom. When I walked out I saw Tina stick her head in through the door to the hallway. Her face lit up. “Wow! Thank you guys so so much! It looks amazing.”
Many of the organizations Yalies worked for on Monday depend upon goodwill.
“We wouldn’t survive without volunteers,” Greg says of Music Haven.
On Monday, I painted one-fifth of a wall. And although it can sometimes feel like our individual contributions are infinitesimal, taken together, they help organizations that make a great difference. Just ask Noel.