“There’s such an emphasis on the arts in our community, but we don’t have a performing space for children — or adults — that can seat a large number of people,” says Jenn Voorhis, president of the Duzine/Lenape PTA. “Our athletic teams are well taken care of, but we don’t have a place where our creative types can show their stuff.”
Not yet, anyway. But a plan to build a 500-seat performance amphitheater into the natural slope of an existing hillside at Lenape Elementary School is attracting a great deal of positive attention from people in the community even beyond the school district, says Voorhis. “It’s really wonderful to see how many people in New Paltz are coming together for this project.”
There are numerous ways, she says, that local residents have joined forces to contribute to getting the amphitheater built, from sponsoring “tribute bricks” to be installed at the site to donating their talents to build the project a website (Michael O’Donnell) and write grants (Steve Densmore of Choice Words). Local engineer Justin Dates of Maser Consulting designed the project and Mark Masseo’s landscaping firm will carry out the construction, with stonework contributed by David Kucera, Inc. of Gardiner. There are residents managing a GoFundMe site and the PIGLETS class at the high school — who practice community leadership through Participation in Government, Literature and Economics for Today’s Students — are putting together a big kickball tournament on June 4 with all proceeds going to the New Paltz Amphitheater Project.
The multi-tiered, semi-circular structure will be surrounded by stonework and natural landscaping. It’s been designed to work for smaller groups as well as serving its full 500-person capacity and will feature a portable, storable bandshell. Financing for the project will be done entirely through donations and fundraising efforts; no tax dollars are involved.
The amphitheater will provide rehearsal and performance space for students who currently share areas also utilized by PE classes, lunch period and band practice. But beyond the performing arts, the amphitheater will provide a striking setting for the annual fifth grade Moving Up ceremony and can be used as an outdoor classroom in good weather for any subject. And when not in use by the school, it can be rented out by nonprofit 501 (c) (3) groups in the community, with plenty of parking available at the site as a bonus.
How it started
The idea to build the amphitheater originated during a conversation between fourth grade teacher Liz Burdick and Lenape principal Audrey Wood, who had just taken the helm at the elementary school for the 2015-16 school year. As Burdick explains on the project’s Facebook page, “Audrey surprised me with a question I often ask the students at the beginning of the school year, but have never been asked in my 27-plus years of teaching. She asked, ‘What are your hopes and dreams for Lenape?’ After explaining how our school has developed a reputation for producing great class plays over the years, I lamented that we didn’t have a performance space of our own. We scrambled to share the cafeteria/stage during the few hours that there weren’t breakfast or lunch periods. We struggled with the acoustics of the space and the seating arrangements. We’d been creative, but…” Burdick says Wood finished the sentence for her. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could have an amphitheater?”
In considering the merits of such a venture, the two even thought of the same site as an ideal location: the hillside behind the gymnasium. Burdick says she left the meeting pleased that the new principal was a creative thinker who supported the arts, but thought that was probably the end of it. “Things like amphitheaters don’t get built at elementary schools. It just doesn’t happen.”
But as it turned out, that meeting set the wheels in motion. Wood spoke with PTA president Voorhis the following day, and learned that the PTA was on board for some fundraising. Voorhis, in turn, met with landscaper Mark Masseo, who confirmed that the hillside already had good drainage and would make an ideal setting for an amphitheater, minimizing the cost of construction.
Raising the funds
The estimated cost of the project at this point is $125,000. To cover any unexpected contingencies, the committee working on fundraising is aiming for $150,000. To some extent, construction will be completed when the funds are raised. But Voorhis says there is no time like now to act, and a completion date of May 2017 has been targeted. “The more creative, committed and consistent we are with our fundraising, the faster we can get this project underway,” is the philosophy of the members of the New Paltz Amphitheater Project Committee, made up of Voorhis, Wood and Masseo along with Jennifer Castle, Patricia Culp, Kim Helmstter, Kendra Soule and Rich Souto.
And they’re off to a good start. The New Paltz United Teachers (NPUT) union, led by Liz Burdick and school social worker Meri Lederer, enlisted parents, students and community members to put on a three-day production last month of “The Peanuts Sing-Along” with numbers from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which raised almost $2,000 to kick off the fundraising.
Currently the Duzine/Lenape PTA is selling “tribute bricks” to raise funds for construction. The durable Eco-Priora Unilock bricks in a granite color, engraved with the names of local residents, will pave the walkways and aisles of the amphitheater. School district policy dictates that the name of a business or commercial enterprise may not be used, but a tribute brick can honor someone special, commemorate a child’s school years or celebrate the family, whose name will now be a permanent part of the New Paltz landscape. Each brick can be engraved with up to three lines of 15 characters per line, including spaces. The wording could read “in memory of,” “in honor of,” or “dedicated to,” or (in the spirit of Charlie Brown), something along the lines of one brick recently ordered: “Happiness is having a sister: Annabel & Willa.”
The cost is $200 per brick. According to the PTA, if 400 bricks are sold, the project can break ground. Tribute bricks may be ordered online at www.NewPaltzAmp.org or a check made out to “Duzine/Lenape PTA” with “brick” in the memo line may be mailed to Lenape Elementary School, Attn: Duzine/Lenape PTA, 1 Eugene Brown Drive, New Paltz NY 12561.
Crowdsourcing and crowd-pleasing kickball
The GoFundMe campaign for the amphitheater is accessible from the NewPaltzAmp.org website. As of press time, $1,300 has been raised.
The Dream Team Kickball Tournament organized by the PIGLETS class will be held Saturday, June 4 at the New Paltz Sports and Recreation Park (Field of Dreams) on Libertyville Road across from the fairgrounds. (The rain date is Sunday, June 5.) The registration fee is $200 per team, with all proceeds benefitting the project. Teams may have any number of players, but only ten players can be on the field at one time. Competitive league play will happen from noon to 3 p.m. followed by family league play from 3-6 p.m. Registration must be done by Saturday, May 28. Winning teams will receive a free tribute brick. Concessions and family activities will be available at the event. More information is available by e-mailing NPZkickball@gmail.com or visit the NewPaltzAmp.org website.
A late summer auction
Come September, the Duzine/Lenape PTA will seek to raise $20,000 through an auction run by the BiddingForGood organization that puts together fundraising auctions for schools and other nonprofits. So far, according to Voorhis, committed prizes that will be available to bid on include rounds of golf at a prestigious club, tickets to see Jimmy Fallon perform, photo shoots with local photographers and a “season of play” with leagues that include the New Paltz Baseball & Softball Association, New Paltz Recreation Soccer and New Paltz Youth Basketball Association. A definite date for the auction will be announced when the date is closer.
More information and updates are available on the Facebook page “New Paltz Amphitheater at Lenape” or visit www.NewPaltzAmp.org.