When 13-year-old Emily Weinberger took the stage during a performance with the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra (GNOYO) in June, she received a hero's welcome. The young violinist traveled from her home in Weston, Conn. (pop. 10,037), not just to perform, but to see firsthand the results of her charitable efforts—a gift of musical instruments, equipment and more than $2,000 for music lessons.
The idea began last year as Emily's mitzvah (an act of kindness) project, which was part of her bat mitzvah, a ceremony in the Jewish faith commemorating becoming an adult. Because Emily loves music and plays the violin, she wanted her project to combine her passion for music with helping others in need.
"Emily told me about her mitzvah project," says her violin teacher Richard Errante of Wilton, Conn. (pop. 17,633). "I had just attended a Norwalk (Conn.) Youth Symphony concert. The audience was asked to give $1 each to help GNOYO in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When Emily heard that, it was as if a light clicked on in her brain."
Using the Internet, she contacted Marianna Roll, the GNOYO's executive director. "Emily explained her project in an e-mail and I responded with a very wishful list," Roll says. The youth orchestra needed instruments, music stands, strings, books and bows because most of the items were destroyed during the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina last year.
Emily went to work, devoting her every free moment after school and on weekends for seven months. She called area music stores, which donated music stands, rosin, clarinet reeds and violin strings. At Weston Middle School, she asked her orchestra teacher if she could set out a box for students to donate musical instruments. She also sent newsletters and e-mails to temple members, friends and family asking for contributions.
"I am so proud that Emily understands the true meaning of giving back," says her mother, Cindy Weinberger.
Emily fulfilled and exceeded Roll's original wish list, collecting 27 instruments, loads of musical equipment and $2,072, enough to provide one year of private lessons to a youth orchestra student in financial need. She even convinced United/Mayflower Van Lines to ship the items to New Orleans for free.
At Roll's request, Emily penned a letter to the orchestra, whose membership had dwindled from 250 to 125 after Hurricane Katrina. "I love music and wanted to help your orchestra because I know how much all of you love music," she wrote. "After reading and learning about GNOYO, I realized what a wonderful orchestra it was and wanted to help you get it back to its original state before Hurricane Katrina."
"When I heard her letter, I was so moved," says orchestra member Emily Menard, 16, of New Orleans. "We have the same name and both play the violin. I have friends here without houses, and it was so encouraging to have someone from so far away who didn't even know me to want to do something so touching and loving."
After reading the letter, Roll invited Emily to New Orleans to perform with the orchestra in a summer concert held at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts in June. "It was really cool playing with the orchestra I had helped," says Emily, who was presented with a giant "Thank You" card from the orchestra. "Not just adults, but kids kept coming up to tell me that they thought what I'd done was really amazing, and greatly appreciated."
Emily's charitable project couldn't have come at a better time. "Being a nonprofit is always hard, but being a nonprofit after Katrina in New Orleans is extremely hard," Roll says. "Our local sources dried up and it's people like Emily who make such a very big difference."
Visit www.gnoyo.org to learn more about the youth orchestra.