Youth groups pitch Downtown programs

By Jessica Mintz

Meryl Dominguez’s toes poked out from under her flowing pink and purple gown. They might not have been such a prominent detail had Dominguez, 10, not been tottering on a pair of stilts two feet above the ground outside the semi-annual Youth Fair hosted by Community Board 1 last Wednesday evening.

Dominguez was helping her teacher Suellen Epstein work the small fair held at the Manhattan campus of St. John’s University. Epstein started Children’s Tumbling in Tribeca 26 years ago; today, the organization offers gymnastics instruction (and eventually stilt-walking and trapeze-flying, too) to kids from 16 months to 12 years.

“The last couple of years have been bad” in terms of enrollment, said Epstein, standing on the sidewalk, hoping towering, balloon-laden Dominguez would lure passers-by into the fair.

As it turned out, the turnout was less than expected. For the 30 or so organizations that set up tables at the fair, an estimated 50 to 75 people dropped in, according to Paul Hovitz, chairperson of the Youth and Education Committee of Community Board 1.

“The parent turnout was not as good as we had hoped for,” said Hovitz. “It was less than we had for last spring, and we need to evaluate that.” Still, said Hovitz, the fair was an opportunity for local organizations – especially new ones – to network and share information about the community they all serve.

“These services are not in competition – they complement each other,” Hovitz said. Most instructors from the handful of ballet programs represented at the fair agreed there are enough Downtown tots to go around.

Many of the participating organizations targeted young children through the pre-teen years. For the first time, the Manhattan Children’s Theatre is offering acting classes for children in addition to its family-oriented performances. Some, like the Murray Street Dance Studio, offer classes in choreography for young students like Isabella Schiller.

“I really enjoy it because [I learn] a lot about improvisation, how to keep the beat,” said Schiller. Though she’s only 11, her explanations about what kind of movements and music she prefers to use in her original choreographies sounded sophisticatedly abstract.

“I really like to move slowly, but quickly, if that makes sense,”she said, peering through square blue wire-rimmed glasses. “I try to keep the audience’s attention,” with pieces set both to classical music and to soul.

Other organizations reached out for students high-school aged and older.

The River Project is a nonprofit that works in conjunction with the Hudson River Park Trust and Community Board 1 on Pier 26 in Tribeca Its mission is to study, protect and restore wildlife, especially in New York’s harbor. After a drastic increase in funding last year, including $360,000 from the National Science Foundation and scholarship money from the Mt. Sinai Superfund Basic Research Program, The River Project expanded its Marine Biology Internship Program. Now, high school students with strong science backgrounds can contribute real research to ongoing studies of waters surrounding the city.

“Interns take care of the fish, clean the tanks, feed them, and check the traps along the river,” said Martin Park, the head of interns with The River Project, who worked with about 20 students over the summer. The two interns who joined him at the table, Kerry Hepner, 14, and Davan Sookla, 16, were brimming with improbable facts about the Hudson. (Did you know the river is home to sea horses?)

Across the room and away from the scrunching sound of balloon sculptures-in-progress, two teenage girls from Brooklyn were promoting a different kind of service. Both are peer counselors from Youthline, a city-funded hotline that fields calls on benign subjects like library hours and after-school programs to more serious ones, like family planning, rape and suicide. The young women were on site to raise the profile of the hotline and to recruit new counselors.

Some participating organizations also provided information on classes for adults, like drawing basics taught by newcomer Claudia Vargas-Dekker; ceramics at Chambers Pottery, and traditional Chinese dance at the New York Chinese Cultural Center.

Clearly, though, the hottest trend Downtown (not counting balloon-sculpture headgear worthy of concurrent Fashion Week festivities) is full-service birthday party planning and hosting. Children’s Tumbling, New American Youth Ballet and the Church Street School for Music and Art all offer supervised parties in their facilities. Church Street even hired a birthday party coordinator.

Throughout the fair, representatives from the various community youth organizations darted between their own tables and those of their peers. When the evening wound down, they packed up their brochures and displays and added to their own piles the flyers and business cards of other organizations, both colleagues and competitors.