This Shaker couple has raised more than $6,000 for UNICEF with the annual “Music for Our Children” concert.
By Zachary Lewis
UNICEF isn’t a remote concept to Shaker Heights pianist Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith. To her, a native of Bulgaria, it’s something real, tangible, and vital.
Hence her desire to support it the way she knows best: with music. Haunted by the presence of UNICEF in her hometown and moved by her own experience as a parent, she and her husband, Jason, are tapping their links to the Cleveland Orchestra and other prominent institutions to mount “Music for Our Children,” a benefit for UNICEF, their fifth such concert in as many years.
“I’ve always felt that children need more help than others,” Ralitsa says. “They’re vulnerable. I knew I could bring people together and make an impact.”
UNICEF, certainly, has made an impact on Georgieva-Smith. Near her childhood home in Bulgaria was what she described as an orphanage. Every time she passed it, she made eye contact with the children inside. She also made physical contact. Periodically, her parents would invite one of the children to her home to enjoy a warm meal and a little sorely needed family time.
“Something about that made a real connection,” says Ralitsa. “It was right there in my face. I never stopped thinking about it.”
Those memories intensified years later when she became a parent. While tending her two daughters (now in first and eighth grades), the teacher of collaborative piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music realized that children need a whole lot more than just food and clothing. They need care, attention, love. Exactly the things that UNICEF, more so than most charities, attempts to offer.
“Little children need someone to hug them and tuck them into bed. This is what hurts me.” Ralitsa says.
She’s far from alone in that sentiment. In the five years the Smiths have been organizing concerts for UNICEF, they’ve only encountered eagerness to help. Jason, a trombone teacher at Cleveland State University, says all he and his wife do is extend invitations to artists from the Cleveland Orchestra, CIM, and the new Cleveland Ballet, and the artists handle the rest. So far they’ve raised some $6,000.
“I’ve always felt that children need more help than others.”
They expect to do well this year. In addition to members of the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Ballet, the concert on January 21 features pianist Sergei Babayan, the renowned artist-in-residence at CIM.
As of this writing, the program was almost certain to include Cleveland Orchestra members William Brian Thornton, Tanya Ell, and Robert Woolfrey, as well as new choreography by Gladisa Guadalupe, artistic director of Cleveland Ballet, and Babayan’s own transcription for two pianos of Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”
Attendance at “Music for Our Children” has soared from 50 to 150. Even more are expected to appear this year, now that the concert is being held at the Cleveland Institute of Music, a popular, accessible location. Between rising attendance at concerts and broad interest in helping UNICEF, Ralitsa says she and Jason are looking to expand “Music for Our Children” from an annual concert into a non-profit organization.
“Almost every single person I’ve approached has been more than enthusiastic,” she says. “The response has been amazing. There’s this huge potential to become something more.”