‘Hamilton’ Cast Helps Children in Need – Wall Street Journal

Natalie, 17, left, and Dymond, 13, students at the Graham School, which is linked to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton’s widow.
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In a poignant moment in the hit Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, his widow Eliza sings that her proudest accomplishment was starting the first private orphanage in New York City.

Since opening in 1806, that refuge for 16 orphans has grown into a sprawling social-service agency called Graham Windham. Providing foster care, a therapeutic school and counseling that tries to keep fragile families together, the agency serves more than 4,000 of the city’s most vulnerable children.

Leaders of the nonprofit have been stunned by a surge of donations due to the spotlight from “Hamilton,” and delighted by a bond with the performers that keeps getting stronger.

Two dozen members of the cast and crew wrote to the agency’s children over the holidays to become pen pals. Phillipa Soo, a 25-year-old who plays Mrs. Hamilton, is recruiting fellow singers to give some of them lessons in acting, dancing and rap in what she calls “The Eliza Project.”

“What better way to make a connection to her legacy?” she said.

Mr. Hamilton was an orphan who rose to be one of America’s founding fathers. Less than two years after he was killed in a duel, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was among a small group of women who founded the Orphan Asylum Society. It rescued children who lost their parents to cholera, yellow fever and tragedy.

Mrs. Hamilton served as its first directress for 27 years. In the musical, Eliza sings that she helped raise hundreds of children, and “In their eyes I see you, Alexander.”

After the orphanage grew, expanded its mission and merged with another nonprofit, it was renamed Graham Windham. It has a nearly $59 million budget this fiscal year, mostly in city contracts to serve families in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

In 1902 the agency built the Graham School, now a residential-treatment center in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County. Sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, it has more than 300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade trying to overcome traumas, behavior issues and learning problems.

Natalie, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn who asked to be identified by her first name, said living at the campus turned her life around. “If it weren’t for this place, I would be in the street, dead or in jail, or not finishing school and having babies,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that for anybody.”

The school’s students who saw “Hamilton” said hearing an allusion to their home from stage was a thrill.

“I felt special,” said Dymond, a 13-year-old who loves writing poetry. Although she often skipped school back in Brooklyn, she said the musical motivated her to tackle Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” with a dictionary by her side.

Dymond said that Mr. Hamilton’s declaration in the show that “I’m not throwing away my shot” spoke to her: “He was telling me not to give up, to keep moving forward, making my dreams come true.”

Jess Dannhauser, president of Graham Windham, said the agency’s tie with the cast began more than a year ago when it received a surprise donation from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical and plays the title role. Mr. Dannhauser said he called to thank Mr. Miranda, who replied, “Wait until you see the ending, you’ll flip out.”

Mr. Dannhauser said that when he saw it he was “blown away.”

“The Eliza Project” has been in the works for months. Curious about the lasting impact of the strong, progressive woman she portrayed on stage, Ms. Soo visited the Graham School and spent hours talking with its students. She wanted to offer them the kind of ‘‘teaching artist” program she saw when she studied at the Juilliard School.

Ms. Soo envisions about 10 cast members working with 15 students from across Graham Windham’s services, for two-hour classes on four Tuesdays in February. The core mission, she said, “is to use the arts as a means of expression, as an outlet for personal experience, and to uplift the creative spirit.”

She has already glimpsed the teenagers’ talents. At an Oct. 27 fundraising lunch for Graham Windham, four students performed songs they had written after seeing the musical. Ms. Soo said their lyrics, which often echoed the show, left her speechless.

“Growing up I found myself running the streets a lot,” sang Dymond. “Not knowing if I would ever make it or not, I told myself…you better take your shot.”

“Eliza, you have done enough,” sang Natalie, 17. “Every day we tell your story.”

That lunch raised more than $400,000, agency officials said. They said some of that money will go toward “Graham SLAM,” which helps young people up to age 25 so they can reach self-sufficiency: Some have aged out of foster care but still need mentoring or emergency money to weather crises and settle into jobs.

On Monday, Mr. Miranda tweeted that “Eliza’s orphanage lives on” and asked his followers to donate. Some did. He has also said that he will give Graham Windham part of the $625,000 he won recently from the MacArthur Foundation in what has come to be called a “genius grant.”

“I am committed for our relationship to continue to flourish,” he said by email. “It’s our gift to make sure Hamilton’s legacy is forever present.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com