By Nicole Wroten, assistant director of communications
Fifteen years ago, Antioch College alumna Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène ’75 was in the middle of moving back to New York City with her husband and daughter as she was trying to get her career in opera off the ground. She was finishing up her doctorate in Slavic studies, but felt the need to do more.
“I needed a job,” she said. “So I made a list of all the things I could possibly do—teach French, teach Russian, teach dance, teach voice, etc.”
Nothing was obvious to Bellen-Berthézène until she took a look at her daughter.
“People were constantly surprised by her storehouse of knowledge and genial manner, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I just teach other people’s kids what I taught my own?’” she said.
In 1997, Bellen-Berthézène founded a program, called HiArt!, which she called “an introduction to high-art aesthetics for kids.” Through hands-on art, HiArt! connects opera with museum visits and gallery hops specializing in twentieth and twenty-first century art.
“The basic idea underlying HiArt! was that kids learn in a much broader way than we think they do,” Bellen-Berthézène said. “I had the advantage of having a very verbal baby. So that by a year old, she had a 200-word vocabulary. What that allowed me to do was to understand a lot about what actually was going on in her head.”
New York Magazine chose HiArt! for its 2000 Best of New York edition, and the “floodgates opened,” Bellen-Berthézène said. This spurred the success of HiArt! to unforeseen levels.
“All the ‘glitterati’ of New York began pouring in my door,” she said.
David Bowie, Hugh Jackman, Mort Zuckerman, and L. A. Reid all had their kids enrolled in the program. It was a great boost financially for HiArt!, but it soon became glaringly obvious to Bellen-Berthézène that children who were less financially able were missing out.
“The fact that so many families of means came to the program made it possible for me to personally help fund anyone who found the program, but for whom it was too expensive—I wanted to be able to ensure that if a mother or father wanted their child in the program, that it would be financially feasible for them.”
As the program progressed, it became more and more apparent to Bellen-Berthézène that there was an entire swathe of the population in New York City for whom opera and art did not even figure into their weekly thoughts. Their concerns were elsewhere, said Bellen-Berthézène—food, shelter, illness, incarcerations, etc.
After realizing this in 2005, Bellen-Berthézène began to think about developing opportunities at HiArt! for children living in at-risk neighborhoods and attending public schools. She knew there was a connection that could be made.
“So I went to the Department of Education and I said, ‘I have this program. It’s amazing, and I want to recreate it for public school kids as part of their regular school day,’” she said. “And I will find the money.”
Bellen-Berthézène worked with several other moms with children in the HiArt! program to help launch her new idea. By 2006, the new program, the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, had a sponsorship from the New York Foundation of the Arts and threw a small-scale fund-raising party that garnered enough support for the initiative to open its doors on October 3, 2006.
“[It was the] perfect recreation of the HiArt! program for some New York City’s youngest, most vulnerable, most at-risk public school kids from Harlem—starting from pre-kindergarten—as part of their regular school day,” Bellen-Berthézène said.
Many of the students she began working with in Harlem, Bellen-Berthézène said, never left the two-block radius of their neighborhood. And often, neither did their parents. She wanted to use the arts as a means to share another world with all of them.
“I wanted to make sure that they were included in the world around them,” she said, “and for them to feel totally comfortable in the world of the arts—especially opera and the visual arts—the perfect place to begin their introduction.”
From the moment she opened the doors to the new Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, close to 70 children—two pre-kindergarten classes and two kindergarten classes—were involved. One five-year-old was born to his mother while she was in jail. Another boy’s mother would leave him for months at a time. One child lived with his grandmother, another had a father in rehab, and one of Bellen-Berthézène’s students had serious speech delays from malnutrition and neglect. But, Bellen-Berthézène said, when they were in her studio creating art with their shoes off and the music on, they were “blossoming, happy, brilliant, attentive, engaged, focused children.”
Bellen-Berthézène says she wants to change the face of education and level the playing field for children who are disadvantaged. Not to give lip service to the idea of a level playing field, she says, but to raise the money needed to provide the same kind of enrichment and stimulation that middle class kids thrive on.
“Quality is quality,” she said. “Every Antioch student knows that. We all grew as people because at Antioch we had the opportunity to work with outstanding, distinguished professors and artists within the Antioch community. And out on co-op to work side by side with some of the most distinguished people in their fields.”
She says Antioch College influenced her decision to take on this venture.
“Antioch changed my life in about seven million ways,” she said. “My list would be very long. Between the influence of teachers and the influence of fellow students, the opportunities we had to test out our ideas and to master huge quantities of information through experience were phenomenal.”
Bellen-Berthézène says that her Antioch network has always been filled with wonderful connections, some of whom have helped fund Time In. One Antiochian, now in Paris, has even helped her connect with micro-financers.
“There are so many Antioch friends of like mind, who share a passion for change—something I believe we all learned at Antioch … to really step up to the plate and make change happen,” she said.
According to Bellen-Berthézène, the future is bright for Time In, but, as with most non-profits, its success still depends on funding. Currently there are an estimated 400 children from both Harlem and Washington Heights waiting to join the program this year.
“I have to raise dollars to make it happen. [It’s] no easy task,” she said. “Too many people are trying to reduce the cost of changing the world. Impossible. There is always a cost. But the benefits far exceed the investment. You just need to be willing to go that road. I think anyone with a vision for our future, for a working and thoughtful democracy, will understand that.”
To learn more about Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène’s Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, or to donate, visit her website at timeinkids.org.