Wednesday, December 13, 2023. Park Avenue, New York, NY. — Jacqueline Weld Drake, the gracious hostess and Chairman of Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, opened the doors to her home to host a phenomenal Annual Holiday Party for Casita Maria Center that included a live performance of Christmas caroling by the Casita Maria Choir.
The Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, is the oldest Latin charity, thriving in New York City. Housed in an underserved and impoverished area in the South Bronx, the organization provides quality arts education programs to more than 1,000 students each day. This impressive level of efficiency is what Casita Maria prides itself as they believe in fostering a safe space that serves as a warm and welcoming community of holistic engagement, uplifting the youth and their families in their offerings through teaching and volunteering.
The mission that Casita Maria focuses on is one of collaboration, coupled with empathy for the unique circumstances and hardships faced by each student-artist that attends their Center. Commitment as a team of professionals is a pact they make day to day, moment by moment as they seek to serve the intellectual, creative, physical, and emotional growth of the young student artists they serve without prejudice; their standard of excellence has championed them in the non-profit sector, 90 years in the making; a hard act to follow for any non-profit organization, but one that is not impossible for Casita Maria as they are being stewarded in by Executive Director, Felix Urrutia Jr through its next stages of development leading to their Centennial Anniversary in 2034. Last but not least, their ever-thriving desire to be innovative as they achieve their mission in partnership with loyal donors, the families that make up the community of the South Bronx, their dedicated administrative, educational team and staff, elected officials, community sponsors, partners, and the ever-growing support they garner as the awareness of their organization’s mission reaches the ears of caring adults who want to see the student artist thrive.
The night opened with guests that included notable figures in the arts, media, and entertainment fields, such as famed and brilliant Art Director, Luisa Lopez Celada, who developed corporate and brand concepts, advertising campaigns, promotional materials, and publication designs for a myriad of companies; Editor-In-Chief and Founder, Jonn Nubian, of YRB Magazine, a lifestyle publication that focuses on fashion, music, art, and related cultural subjects; the intelligible and articulate CC Minton of The House Of Minton; Seven-time FiFi Award winner and internationally renowned packaging designer Marc Rosen and many more! The guests mingled and enjoyed tasty hors d’oeuvres, choice wines, beverages, and champagnes. Various media outlets and the honorary Casita Maria Community board members and supporters of the organization who have either participated in the offerings of Casita Maria, all held light conversation while indulging in fresh roasted turkey, peppercorn steak, and rye bread entrees.
I had the opportunity to speak with Gail Heidel, the Artistic Director at Casita Maria overseeing all performing and visual arts and arts education programs. For almost a decade, Gail has poured her heart and soul into seeking new opportunities for the students of the Casita Maria Center. With over twenty years of experience as an arts administrator, curator, educator, and visual artist, Gail gushes over the reality that she has found her “dream career”, serving others and one that allows her to remain in the space of creativity, to teach and to give back to the community. We spoke on the “South Bronx Culture Festival” an annual tradition for the organization that began in 2011, held in the first week of June, and celebrates the vibrant culture and communities of the South Bronx through an annual performance series anchored by a new theme each year. This year the free outdoor performances were held at Father Gigante Plaza and garnered in support from BronxNet Television, media partners of the Casita Maria.
One of the most impressive things that I discovered while speaking to Gail about Casita Maria, is that there’s a holistic emphasis and approach the organization takes in introducing the student artists into each medium. Offering studies and concentrations in music, performing arts such as theater and dance; instrumentation like piano and violin, as well as visual arts. It is refreshing to know that the engagement isn’t in place to pacify inner city youth; the staff and the programs built around the student-artist are about full engagement, and involvement, with consideration of their psychological and emotional development in mind. The organization also works in collaboration with volunteers and Teaching Artists, a comprehensive training and internship program comprised of artists, designed to prepare them for their fields through practicing their artistic crafts in the classroom. This level of consideration and mindfulness on the part of Casita Maria’s team and leadership is one to be ever admired and esteemed. These efforts are the cornerstone of what holds the borough of the Bronx, and the city together. True to their statement, Casita Maria is where generations of local residents have found a home away from home—a place to gather, play, create, learn, and grow. It stands as a symbol of resilience, providing vital support in arts, education, and community and youth development.
These efforts are all aimed at producing well-rounded individuals who aspire to fulfill their dreams.
Casita Maria’s educational programs offer after-school and summer programming for up to 1,000 young people from kindergarten through high school. Programs are built on a Creative Youth Development framework that combines arts education with academic assistance and positive youth development principles to empower young people to reach their potential as artists, scholars, and leaders.
All programs are free and operate after school from 2:30 to 6 PM. Casita Maria, though known to have a higher attendance from Bronx residents, accepts participants on a first come-first served basis, regardless of need.
To learn more about this wonderful organization and to show your support for the Casita Maria mission, visit their website at: https://www.casitamaria.org/