Dorothy Nevas Freedman was proud as a peacock as she toured a state of the art children’s summer camp in Fairfield County.
She watched teens hopping up and down to modern routines taught by Alvin Ailey dance professionals, kids drawing intricate still lifes in art classes, and burgeoning actors performing scenes and reading essays they had written about their lives. She was also treated to an energetic performance by a hot jazz ensemble.
While this camp sounds like one that could be found in the likes of Weston or Westport because of the high caliber of its arts programs, it is actually the summer camp of Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, which is located in Bridgeport.
Ms. Freedman, whose nickname is “Dood” (rhymes with “good”), is on the Board of Directors of Neighborhood Studios, a non-profit, year-round arts school for children with physical or emotional disabilities and those who are economically challenged.
The school was founded in 1977 by Patricia Hart — a musician who lost her sight as an adult. Although it was originally a music school for students who were visually impaired, the school grew over time and now offers a variety of arts programs to a more diverse group.
As Ms. Freedman walked past a drum circle at the summer camp, she stopped for a moment to enjoy the circle’s rhythmic beats.
“Two of the drummers in the group are blind, and their talent and dedication amazes me,” she said.
Ms. Freedman and her husband Fred Freedman, an attorney and retired judge, have lived in Weston for more than 30 years. The couple has three grown daughters, Ellen Wilner, Susan Filan, and Janet Freedman.
A recipient of the Arthur and Gladys Lunin Humanitarian award from the Jewish Home for the Elderly, Ms. Freedman is devoted to public service, and has been involved with Neighborhood Studios since 2001.
She is so passionate about the children in the studio’s arts education program that one year for a birthday present, her daughters set up a personal scholarship fund in her name that Ms. Freedman awards to students from Neighborhood Studios who go on to college.
At the studio’s spring gala this year at the Westport Country Playhouse, Ms. Freedman awarded scholarships to two teens: Michael Benjamin, a lead drummer in the school’s jazz ensemble who has won several local talent competitions; and Brittany Best, an accomplished hip hop, jazz, and ballet dancer who started her career at the studio’s Alvin Ailey Dance Camp when she was nine.
“I’m very proud of Neighborhood Studios and how it is meeting needs that are otherwise not being met for these kids. It provides an opportunity for children to discover their talents. Kids are learning how to sketch, sculpt, play music and dance — things they would never, ever otherwise have a chance to try in the public schools they attend. When I visit their classes, I’m so impressed because the students are very engaged in what they’re doing,” she said.
About 85% to 95% of the students at Neighborhood Studios graduate from high school, while half of the class of 2011 in Bridgeport did not finish school and dropped out.
“Bridgeport has fallen way behind. I support this program because it helps the kids feel important and there is a feeling of accomplishment from the classes,” Ms. Freedman said.
She said many Neighborhood Studios students go on to college and have gone on to successful careers in show business. Some have come back to teach at the studio. “This place is a success story not many people know about,” she said.
Ms. Freedman believes arts education is a great way for children to learn.
Actress Carol Channing, who heads the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, would agree.
In an interview last spring with The Forum at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ms. Channing said, “The arts exercise a child’s brain for things that don’t even relate to arts at all.” She explained that music and playing instruments helps children learn math because they have to read music and be aware of beats, and acting helps children learn how to memorize things and expands their minds.
Ms. Freedman hopes to eventually connect Ms. Channing and her foundation to Neighborhood Studios.
One of the things Ms. Freedman noticed at Neighborhood Studios is how students learn the importance of working together.
“The jazz ensemble can’t perform unless all the members show up, so it takes a firm commitment from the students. They are exposed to a work ethic that will serve them well when they grow up,” she said.
Ms. Freedman has spent a great deal of her life helping others. She majored in sociology at the University of Michigan and got a master’s degree in education at Fairfield University.
She worked at the Katharine Gibbs School in Norwalk in placement and helped women who were recovering alcoholics or were victims of domestic violence further their education in order to support themselves and their families.
Ms. Freedman volunteered at the YWCA and went on to become a Family Violence Victim Advocate at the Golden Hill Courthouse in Bridgeport where she met victims on the day of arraignments.
“I would meet with moms and their children at the courthouse and help them with restraining orders. I was exposed to many situations involving domestic violence, ” she said.
After Ms. Freedman retired from the court in 2001, she got a call from Harold Levine, chairman of the Board of Directors of Neighborhood Studios, who asked if she would be interested in joining the board. “This dovetailed with what I was doing at the courthouse because there were kids taking classes at Neighborhood Studios that I knew from court. So I said yes, I would like to join,” she said.
What she found at Neighborhood Studios was so positive she stayed on board for the past 11 years.
“There are many excellent teachers and assistants here,” she said. Instructors range from Alvin Ailey dance professionals to professional musicians like Frank Derico, the studio’s program director. Several disabled people also teach classes.
“David Goldstein runs a fantastic program that teaches blind students how to write and create music,” Ms. Freedman said.
Ms. Freedman hopes others in Weston and Fairfield County will stop by and visit Neighborhood Studios. “They’re always looking for more board members, and as a non-profit they can, of course, use any size donation. They’d especially welcome people in the arts who can spend a little time talking to students,” she said.
For more information about Neighborhood Studios visit nsstudios.org.