MEET SHARON HITE
Sharon Hite is a native New Yorker, music aficionado, and lifelong believer in the power of knowledge to shape a better future for people and the planet. In this interview, she shares what sparked her interest in philanthropy, what delights her about the organizations The Hite Foundation supports, and the legacy she hopes to create.
How long have you been involved in philanthropy?
I’ve always been involved in charitable organizations. For many years when I was still working as a real estate broker in Westchester and New York City, I gave and raised money for United Jewish Appeal and Feed the Children and similar organizations. Over the years my interests have expanded, and I’ve discovered new passions, and since the mid-2000s, I’ve been very active as a board member of The Hite Foundation.
What are your top passions in life?
Music, art, and my grandchildren, who I try always to involve in my love for music and art.
Have music and art always been a part of your life?
No! In fact, I was probably 20 years old the first time I set foot in an art museum. I was attending Brooklyn College, taking an art class, and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. I was in wonder at that experience. To this day, I could sit in the Met for hours, mesmerized.
Although I didn’t grow up with music and art as part of my life, I was fortunate that my parents believed very strongly in education. Education was a portal for me into a world beyond what was right in front of me and I believe that education can be that portal for all children.
Whether it’s sleep away camp, a music class, or a trip to a museum, there are expanding experiences that can help children prepare for life. The more things they do, the more people they meet, the more able they will be to make better decisions.
What are some of the ways you help introduce children to music and art?
I am on the education committees at both the New York Philharmonic and the 92nd Street Y, and both organizations bring music classes into public schools across New York City. The New York Philharmonic in particular just amazes me – I’ve watched them teach little children the history of music and how to compose a sonata! Also, I’m president of the Little Orchestra Society, which, in addition to offering music classes in public elementary schools, puts on a concert series and offers free or discounted tickets to all performances.
What is it like working alongside your husband Larry on The Hite Foundation’s mission?
Larry and I connect strongly around music. I adore opera and he adores the philharmonic, so we enjoy attending performances together and hosting benefits for the New York Philharmonic at our home in New York City. The New York Philharmonic is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States – it was founded in 1842 – and every year, we travel around the world with them, acting as ambassadors of sorts while they are on tour. It is an incredibly well-travelled philharmonic – so far, they have performed in more than 430 cities in 63 countries on five continents. In 2018 we are off to Beijing, Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Taipei with them.
Also, we are both committed to the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, so we have taken classes together to help us become more informed about music and even our approach to philanthropy. For example, since neither of us is tech-savvy, we took a class at the 92nd Street Y about social media. It showed us how vital social media is in today’s world and consequently the very first grant we gave to the African Parks Foundation was to support a social media initiative.
Of course, there are topics that Larry is deeply passionate about, such as medical research, and so he focuses on them while I focus on other things.
I want to ask you about several of the organizations you are particularly involved with that we haven’t discussed much yet and have you tell me a little about each of them …
92nd Street Y
The depth and breadth of programming at the 92nd Street Y is extraordinary. They have eight programming centers across New York City and serve about 300,000 people annually. They do everything from nursery school programs, housing, and centers for the aged, to classes on dozens of subjects and lectures by the world’s most fascinating people. Larry and I are particular fans of their Lyrics and Lyricists series and I’m proud to be on their education committee. It is so extraordinary to be part of an organization with the range that 92nd Street Y has – on any given day people have the opportunity to be inspired by talks with the world’s greatest thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Over the years, speakers have included cultural icons including Maya Angelou and Salman Rushdie, and just in the past year we’ve hosted Malcolm Gladwell, Amos Oz, Marina Abramović, and Alec Baldwin, among many others.
The Little Orchestra Society
LOS has about 20 outreach programs in New York City’s public schools and it is a vital key to introducing little children to the joy of music. I first got involved when two of my grandchildren were very small, and now I’m the president of their board. LOS is 70 years old and we are focused on setting it up for another 70 years of success by bringing in younger people with fresh ideas and new approaches.
The Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival
We used to spend summers in the Hamptons, but now we spend summers in Aspen. I call it paradise. It’s nine days of classes with some of the most amazing thinkers and philanthropists in the world. It is a place that always inspires me. Last year, for example, at the ideas festival, they had a robot named Shimon playing marimba! Can you imagine! I love this exploration of creativity.
African Parks Foundation
I got involved with African Parks through a friend at the New York Philharmonic. She asked me if I like elephants, and I said “Yes! I love elephants!”, then she asked me if I’d like to help save them and of course I said yes.
African Parks does a fantastic job of helping protect not only elephants and other endangered species, but also helping the local people. Funds are used to train rangers, keep poachers away, and erect fences that keep the animals from trampling nearby villages. When the animals are safe, then tourism increases, and the villagers benefit from a stronger economy. Everyone wins! Our goal is to manage 20 parks in Africa by 2020 and we are already at the 14th one as of early 2018. We have a new president now too, which is very exciting – Prince Harry was named president in late 2017. He is really an inspiration – very hands-on. In 2016 he personally helped to relocate elephants, rhinoceros, and zebra in Malawi, leading them to safety alongside rangers.
What has been one of your most significant achievements in your philanthropic work?
I feel like all of my work is rewarding, and I’m incredibly happy I can help so many organizations achieve their missions. Having said that, in 2017 I co-produced a documentary film along with my friend Elizabeth Hemmerdinger called “Perfectly Normal for Me” that makes me very proud.
This documentary is about a program called Dancing Dreams that was first put together in a community in Queens, New York City to help little girls with cerebral palsy. The idea behind the program was that every little girl wants to be a princess or a dancer, and while we can’t make them princesses, we can make them dancers even with their physical limitations. The program is a group effort: parents sew the costumes, physical therapists work with the little girls to learn to dance, and high school students act as helpers.
As the film shows, the smiles on the faces of the little girls when they dance is just amazing. We hope that this film will tour across the United States and Europe and around the world because it is a remarkably easy to replicate and inexpensive way to brighten the lives of children with cerebral palsy. Since the film was shot, the program has been expanded to include boys as well.
When you think about the future, what do you hope your work with The Hite Foundation will have helped to achieve?
Who knows what the future will bring in terms of needs. While it is likely that food and shelter and basic safety will continue to be needs, we hope that government can help address those issues more successfully. But there has to be something beyond basic needs, and that’s the spark I hope we light, the door we help to open.
Going back to my point about the importance of education – how can you know you might like to play an instrument if you don’t even know that this possibility exists? I want to be part of introducing children to music and culture and the world beyond what is immediately visible to them. And I want to be part of ensuring that the worlds most accomplished singers and musicians continue to be able to sing and play.