Most New Orleanians know of Better Than Ezra as the LSU-bred champions of millennium rock. Their biggest singles "Desperately Wanting" and "Good" are probably being hummed absent-mindedly across the city even now. The band continues to be active, touring and playing big-ticket shows in town recently ringing in the New Year at Harrah's. But what many people may not know is that these Rock n' Rollers are also community leaders - avid ones - who have adopted a local school as the recipients of their fundraising.
Since 2000, the band has hosted their annual fundraisers The Ezra Open for a variety of causes, always based on the betterment and renewal of New Orleans. They've since institutionalized their philanthropy, creating the Better Than Ezra Foundation (BTEF), one of the city's most active community forces. Over the past few years, they've focused their attention on the Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology in Hollygrove. The band saw that this school, serving mostly underprivileged students, consistently excelled in academic performance. After developing a relationship with the school, they learned that the test scores were simply a symptom of a positive community atmosphere. Bethune's staff fostered authentic, teaching relationships with their students, even pooled their own funds to purchase washers and dryers for the building so the students could have fresh uniforms. Here was this group of teachers, parents and students, refusing to contribute to the statistical stigma of low income yielding low performance.
Since 2010, the BTEF has donated countless school supplies, built an educational playground, renovated the teacher's lounge and purchased an audio-visual system to enhance classroom technology. But they wanted to do even more. They noticed that the kids wanted to be at school. At the end of the day, they didn't want to go home, they wanted to keep learning. The school could not afford after care for those crucial time between dismissal and dinner, which the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention sites as peak hours for youth violence, drug abuse and crime. So BTEF raised funds and created an after school program, extending student learning and allowing for a broader educational range than the school day can provide, giving these kids exposure to dance, music and art.
"We've done a lot with Bethune over the years but we really wanted to take it to the next level and create a program that extends outside of the classroom" says Tom Drummond, bassist and founding member of the band.
The BTEF partnered with the veteran nonprofit organization Young Audiences of Louisiana, founded in 1961, which currently operates 17 after school programs city-wide. The partnership between, BTEF and Young Audiences is an exciting union of the professional and educational arts, entertainers and community leaders coming together to pool their resources, passions and knowledge.
Enriching these students' lives with the arts allows them to approach academic and social learning with a new perspective. Think of the communication skills fostered by participating in a drum line or dance team. Yet beyond the value of a broadened horizon lies the relationship behind this program: professional musicians creating the next generation of artists while focusing on the importance of excelling in the classroom.
The program, which started this fall, includes 30 minutes of homework assistance followed by 75 minutes in arts classes in Visual Arts, African Drums & Dance, Marching Band and Film Production. For students who may have fallen behind their grade level, the program offers individualized and small group learning in Math and English Language Arts.
The BTEF hopes to continue and expand this program for years to come, so their fundraising efforts are always developing. The 12th annual Ezra Open, the foundations largest event, will take place this spring.
Whether you know all the words to Friction Baby or not, the BTEF is a foundation worth supporting. Their work with Bethune is an investment in the artists of the future, perpetuating the artistic community, and reputation, of New Orleans. Visit www.btefoundation.org to learn more and donate to the cause.