RSVP, is a pilot program that introduces the arts to recently arrived unaccompanied immigrant children seeking humanitarian protection as an acculturation path-marking experience in New York City. These unaccompanied immigrant children (UIC’s) range in average age from 12 to 17 and embarked on unthinkably perilous journeys. As the founder of Terra Firma, Dr. Alan Shapiro said, “Just imagine coming from the Guatemalan highlands, or the Caribbean coast of Honduras and ending up in New York City; could you possibly think of places more disparate?”

RSVP is an initiative in partnership with Terra Firma as part of its enrichment services. Located in the South Bronx, Terra Firma’s mission is to ensure that unaccompanied immigrant children and newly arrived families have access to quality mental health and medical care and legal representation, attain safety and stability, and enhance their resilience to achieve their full potential. Aligning with leading cultural institutions, organizations, artists, and businesses throughout New York City—RSVP introduces how the arts are foundational to all New Yorkers in making it their home, and most importantly for recently arrived unaccompanied immigrant children.

For RSVP’s pilot program, participants have experiences in the arts through a combination of weekly field visits throughout the city that are complemented by hands-on workshops where the participants engage in exercises to map (using a variety of materials and mediums that include videos, photos, drawings, writing, and music) and reflect on what they did, what they want to do, and who they want to be in their new home — New York City.

Areas of the arts for the pilot include: Architecture, Art, Music, and Performance/Theater. Examples of the partnering organizations for the field visits include: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (architecture), Times Square Arts (performance and theater), and National Sawdust (music), among other organizations. A key component of the field visits is that the children will actually engage in related activities of ‘making and doing’ while at these sites of cultural production.

Mapping exercises incorporate the places and activities that the youth identified as making New York City a home for them, as well as becoming a guide to ‘their NYC’. By design, the RSVP program commenced by introducing all disciplines in the arts. The participants eventually chose the discipline that they would focus on and the program iterated from. They were introduced to partners in that respective discipline with field visits and in-house exercises to experience and understand the discipline in a comprehensive manner ultimately in one-on-one experiences as a form of mentorship.

Each participant in RSVP receives a stipend for their involvement. Meals and transportation are provided to the participants as well as fluent Spanish speakers (or their native language) who coordinate the programs. RSVP mapping exercises will be further developed into a shareable resource, as well as an app for the current and future arrivals—literally creating their guide to NYC. The program is developed with reciprocity in mind, and the understanding of how courageous these unaccompanied immigrant children are, and how invaluable their experiences and knowledge is. This knowledge is not only valued by Terra Firma, the initiative RSVP, New York City, and the field visit partners, but most importantly—by the youth themselves. RSVP will reveal what NYC as their new home is to them as they build their guide, and also to the world. In the future, and complementary to RSVP there will be a more ‘academic’ mapping program developed on migration and climate and conflict.

The program for RSVP was developed by Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, studios and DYKWTCA, Jessica Marshall, PhD, Suchi Reddy/ReddyMade Design, Dr. Alan Shapiro/Terra Firma, Sara Wagner/Terra Firma. With additional coordination provided by Zoe Ervolino, Felin Martinez, Amaury Mateo, Shraddha Ramani, Erick Ramirez, and Shawn Wu.

RSVP is funded in part by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund through the foundation’s Arts & Mental Health initiative.

“Creating the program RSVP for such a courageous and vulnerable population of unaccompanied immigrant children in New York City is not only essential, it is extremely rewarding to witness acculturation through the arts, as a constituent of mental health and well-being in NYC,” said Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC studios/DYKWTCA. “In the past decade we have witnessed a significant increase in individuals, and particularly unaccompanied immigrant children making the treacherous journey to the southern border and out of necessity making the very difficult decision to leave their homes due to climate, conflict, and forced migration to come to the US. It was fortuitous to meet Dr. Alan Shapiro through DYKWTCA and support the work of Terra Firma. They are the last mile providing holistic services that are deeply and directly impacting the lives of these unaccompanied immigrant children. Culture is foundational to New York City and it is the reason why so many people make it their home. It seemed obvious from the necessary work that Terra Firma is doing to cultivate direct experiences in the arts for these youth to determine their path-marking in New York City. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and its Arts and Mental Health Initiative provided the invaluable support and catalyzed the program RSVP with Terra Firma.”

“RSVP is exactly the type of program that Terra Firma dreamed about when we conceptualized a youth enrichment program for newly arrived unaccompanied immigrant children,” said Dr. Alan Shapiro, the founder of Terra Firma. “Our youth enrichment program was designed to help facilitate acculturation and normalize lives that have been traumatized by violence and upheaval. From our inception, we have been so impressed by the resilience of the children, so it is no surprise that they have embraced RSVP. We envision this pilot program will lead to a ‘Guide to NYC’ — by unaccompanied immigrant children for the newly arrived. How cool is that! We are grateful to Mary Ellen Carroll/MEC, studios/DYKWTCA and their collaborators for bringing their creativity to Terra Firma and to the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund’s Arts and Mental Health Initiative for supporting this awesome project.”

“Decades of research have shown that the arts have a significant role to play in addressing mental health challenges, including trauma and stigma. Coming to a new country is inherently disorienting, and often traumatic, no matter the circumstances” said Laurie Tisch, founder and president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. “We are happy to support RSVP, an innovative program using the arts to increase wellbeing in a very vulnerable population. The services that Terra Firma provides to unaccompanied immigrant children help normalize their lives, spark creativity and provide much needed assistance as they adjust to their new homes.”

Partnering Organizations have included:
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
El Museo del Barrio
FX Collaborative Architecture
Lucas Michael Studio
Pregones—Puerto Rican Travelling Theater
SO-IL Architecture
Times Square Arts Alliance

Photograph by Shawn Wu ©2023 Mary Ellen Carroll / MEC, studios for RSVP and DYKWTCA at Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Charette with RSVP participants who designed their own islands and linked them together.