We’re so thrilled to begin a new CHAW feature, Donors Make A Difference. CHAW has always been rooted in the support of the community, and every single person who walks through the doors contributes to that support. This feature will focus on the stories and connections of CHAW champions who contribute so deeply to the sustainability of CHAW, and our ability to keep the doors open and the lights on for all. We are grateful and excited to share more of their stories with all of you!
We’re especially delighted to begin with a true CHAW shero, Paris Singer Russell. Paris has been with CHAW from the very, very beginning--when we were still located in a church basement!--and has stuck with us through thick and thin, offering her support, positivity, and ultimate CHAWsomeness every step of the way. CHAW’s own CDO, Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld, spoke to Paris in February 2021 about her experiences with three generations of CHAW community, as well as her hopes for her own contributions.
With her permission, we would like to note that Paris is generously donating via her IRA Rollover. If you’re interested in learning more and are over 70 ½, please take a look at THIS article, and don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld: Paris, it’s so good to connect with you again today, and thank you for taking the time to chat with me! To start off, we’d love to be able to share: What’s your CHAWstory?
Paris Singer Russell: We’re on our third generation of CHAW. I was pregnant with my son when Sally Crowell [founder of CHAW] called me to be a part of it all. It was the whole crew of us you’ll recognize from the photo in the first floor bathroom at CHAW, leaning over the balcony of the BB French School.
We moved to the Hill in 1969, and I was taking ballet in Georgetown--there was no place right here in our neighborhood. We started meeting in the church basement and called it a workshop (I think that was based on Jane Fonda workouts) - it was a catchy phrase at the time! In the process, the BB French School became available. Parrots, the birds, everything roosted inside the building--we had to get bird flu and parrot fever shots in order to go into the building and do any cleaning! It was such a bonding experience because we were able to do this together. That included many of us in the neighborhood plus the fabulous marines just a block away--lo and behold, a cadre was willing to help!
We spent a good part of the first year cleaning. With Jim Mayo, we figured out how to get drywall, set up areas to move through, and still maintain that CHAW flow. From the beginning, we felt that it needs to have a palpable feeling that you are welcome; that you can easily flow upstairs to downstairs. We couldn’t remove the columns, so we thought, we’ll incorporate them. Ironically, they still aren’t in our way - we work around them. And, with the kids, they can hold and swing around them...or serve as a stage setting. At that time we were using Christ Church or Eastern Market for plays - but we wanted to produce plays as well. CHAW evolved.
I was pregnant and my son was born in 1972 - it was like giving birth at the same time to this vision that we believed was possible and that we needed in the neighborhood that didn’t exist there. We had a core vision of being welcoming, diverse, inclusive - come, try us, if you can pay tuition, great, if you can’t, we’ll find a way to help you - that has helped through all the changes over time in the board and in directors. It’s something I find totally unique. There were no distinctions - no “other people” - always us. We were a motley group - race, gender, age - thank goodness that has continued on - we make a way for anyone who really wants to be a part of it. We’ll make it possible, one way or another, to work with you so you can participate and develop whatever you want to develop.
My son took tap dancing lessons with Ann Johnson’s daughter Emily. I did tap dancing with Ann and jazz and ballet and theatre productions. And so it’s always been like - I can’t imagine our Hill community without it. It would be really wonderful if people in our area could manage a way that we could own it so we could make the capital improvements - the roof, the windows, the van, whatever we need - outreach. We need to own this wonderful creation - is the BB French School perfect for us? It’s just fine. Somehow where we are feels grounded, secure, right. In my opinion!
Because we started bit by bit and mortar by mortar with the vision that you can flow in it, not be intimidated by it, you walk in and go “ah.” The people are smiling - they don’t mind if you just quietly observe. This is unheard of! Where can you go to just quietly observe and say, “Yes, I’d love to do this” or “Yes, I’d love to bring a friend” or “Yes I know a child!” I feel this when I bring my granddaughter - she feels at home. That sense of inclusiveness is just there, in the building.
HJB: What difference do you hope to make through your donation?
PSR: Wanting to contribute is second nature - you come first! Let’s keep the building; let’s get this 50th to become the real foundation to put out there! We’ll never give up. I trust the Board of Directors, I trust the Director - you know where it’s needed most.
But if I had big buckets, I’d put it toward getting the building strong and secure, and then I would put it to outreach programs - for people who can’t afford it. I love that we always pay our teachers. We respect their professionalism and I absolutely love that as well.
And! Environmental! We want Green! I’ve been out with Jane Fonda every Friday for Fire Drill Fridays. That is essential to us as humanity.
I think our uniqueness and our inclusiveness and the variety of classes and outreach we provide isn’t anywhere else. Everybody has their contribution to make - and that has been since 1972.
HJB: What inspires you about CHAW?
PSR: I think the camaraderie - you have a sense of family. You may not know each other, but eventually you become part and parcel of it. My granddaughter didn’t “know” about that when she started Music Together at CHAW at 6 months - but once she connected with the teachers who were teaching the little ones tap and ballet, they just bonded and I said to myself in that moment - just so. It’s exactly what I felt; it’s what my son felt. It’s intergenerational. It still goes on, even so, to the third generation. They bond somehow; it must be in the air or in the water. You could see the light; you could see it happening. The children had never met before, maybe they don’t remember from week to week, but they get there and they are all in. They take care of each other and say, we can do this. We’ve got some magic in that air.
I feel it with the tap dancers or when we did theatre or house cleaning two days a year...it’s an incredible bond in a way I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world. That is just invaluable.
HJB: What’s one thing you hope for through CHAW?
PSR: That’s a tough one as we sit here in this pandemic and can’t be together. There’s that world over there and what I hope for very deeply is that when we get over the bridge of COVID somehow, some way, we can still feel what we felt before. It’s what I hope deep inside myself - that the children and older people and instructors haven’t become so fearful of the hugging and the bonding and the joyousness of singing together - that that will still happen. That’s what I hope for most of all. That we won’t be too changed. That it will still be there. I feel it will be and believe it will be. Better respect for one another; more inclusiveness, without that fear that has been divisive in our country. That that won’t enter in our doors - that our doors will be safe.
CHAW gives the momentum and the thrust to practice this elsewhere, too. We sure have the fine people and the roof isn’t falling in yet! We manage; we work it - because it is the heart and soul of CHAW, the people who come through the doors - the entity that is allowed to bloom inside those walls.
HJB: It’s been so wonderful getting to chat with you today, Paris. I’d love to end on this question: what’s one thing that took your breath away this week?
PSR: Opening my front door and having all these little birds sitting in the tree, now waiting for me! We’re ready for breakfast! You can hear them calling from all different treetops, and then they move to the right side where they feel safe. That’s one thing I really noticed with great gratitude, to feel that interconnectedness of all of us.
Diogenes, my dog, is another source of joy. One thing that just delighted me to no end - Diogenes is an old fellow - was to see him catching up to me with ears flopping up and down and tail wagging and saying here I am-you’re worried about the ice, but I’m not. His joie de vivre made me laugh.
I’ve been thinking about gratitude. I was talking with my granddaughter recently and she was concerned about people dying. I told her: When your daddy was your age, he said the same thing. And I told him, everything will die, yes, but I hope not for some time. He thought about that for a little while, and came back to me triumphantly: “Yup, that’s the only way to avoid it.” I said, “Avoid what?” “Dying!” “How?”
He was just a 3 ½- or 4- year-old. Just remember, living. I was so grateful to her for bringing that back to me. And CHAW is living.
These are the Generations. We’re in a real biggie right now. That’s why I want what I can give to go to CHAW and why the 50th will be so important. The children are wisest of all because they observe. I see more through her eyes - go slower - time goes so fast because I move more slowly. I see CHAW through her eyes and the joy that it brings. Grandchild, dog, birds - there it is.
I think we’re gonna get there - we’re gonna open the doors at CHAW and say, we’re home.
If you’re as inspired by Paris as we are and would like to contribute, check out our DONATE page. Thank you to Paris and to all of our CHAWsome supporters and champions!