Marching Band Star Passes the Baton

October 15, 2013
Kim Morel-Betances, assistant director of patient access for ColumbiaDoctors
Kim Morel-Betances, assistant director of patient access for ColumbiaDoctors

When she walks into a classroom in the Hammer Health Sciences Center to lead a workshop for faculty practice staff, Kim Morel-Betances, assistant director of patient access for ColumbiaDoctors, knows how to engage an audience  Colleagues say she is one of the best  facilitators they have seen: She connects quickly to the people in the room with her warm, friendly demeanor—useful for opening up discussions on the potentially touchy subjects her classes address, including professional communications with patients and time management at work.

Ask Ms. Morel-Betances where she acquired the poise and people skills that make her good at her job and she credits an experience she had long before CUMC issued her first employee ID twenty years ago. As a nine-year-old girl in Washington Heights, she learned to twirl a baton for her father’s twirling and marching band for children. That gave her a first intoxicating taste of performance and taught her skills she now uses every day in all aspects of her work, with its focus on improving processes to increase patient access.

“I think my performance background gives me the confidence to stand in front of people without second-guessing myself,” says Ms. Morel-Betances, who speaks with quiet confidence. “For me, baton-twirling as a young girl was a stepping stone. It led me to a pageant world, an experience that opened up doors to public speaking, representing Latino women. That led to so many good things in my life. All of this kept me on the right path growing up, while many of my friends fell victim to urban challenges.”

Ms. Morel-Betances attended La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, was crowned the 1986 Queen of the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade, attended college on scholarship, and returned, as she had always intended, to work at CUMC. She was following in the footsteps of her mother, who worked for decades as a coding supervisor in the medical records office. Ms. Morel-Betances sees her career, especially her current role working to improve access to patient care, as a form of service to the community.

Though fulfilled in her job at CUMC, she always thought she would eventually do something more to serve the neighborhood she grew up in. That’s why, in 2011, when her brother asked for her help in starting a Washington Heights-based twirling and marching band like the one their father had created for local youth, Ms. Morel-Betances was eager to sign on. Thus was born the New York Stars Twirling and Marching Band.

Kim Morel-Betances performs with the New York Stars Twirling and Marching Band
Kim Morel-Betances performs with the New York Stars Twirling and Marching Band

“So many children out there need an affordable creative outlet,” she says. Although the band would involve many extra hours of work—at least 10 a week—and an extra day commuting to Washington Heights from Staten Island, where Ms. Morel-Betances lives with her husband and two children, the sacrifice would be worth it. It would be a way to give back to the community, to recreate for others something she had loved in her own youth, and to continue her father’s legacy.

Once Ms. Morel-Betances and her brother, Dean Morel, decided to form the band, they began spreading the word among friends and posting flyers in the neighborhood, seeking young musicians, twirlers, and members of the color guard.  No experience necessary.  As Ms. Morel-Betances and her brother had suspected, Washington Heights still had the same hunger for fun, creative activities as when they were children.

Within a day, 18 young performers had signed up. During the first year, 35 children participated, and two other former members of their father’s bands offered to help lead the group.

“We always knew we wanted to do something for the Heights. We did it hoping it would take off, and it really has,” says Ms. Morel-Betances, smiling with a mix of pride and gratitude.

Two years later, membership has more than doubled, and they have performers of all abilities, ranging in age from seven to 17, including baton-twirlers, musicians, and a color guard. Every Saturday, the group meets in a church gymnasium on 179th Street for a rigorous, four-hour practice session in preparation for what sometimes can be an intense performance schedule.

During the summer, it is not uncommon to have a parade or community event to play for every week.  Recently, beyond parades, block parties, and other traditional venues for a twirling and marching band, they have gotten calls for other types of appearances. A rock band called The Heavy contacted the band, asking for a few twirlers  to appear in their music video. A European magazine had a few band members pose for a fashion spread with a model.

Although the group relishes such successes, it intentionally keeps costs—and the barrier to entry—low. All are welcome and no experience is required. Dues are just $5 a month, and instruments are lent to the musicians by the group. Many were purchased by the junior Mr. Morel, others were donated, and several were recently bought with a grant from the CUMC Neighborhood Fund. Although baton-twirlers buy their own batons, the band buys them up front and lets the children pay off the $20 cost in installments.

If even these low costs are prohibitive, Ms. Morel-Betances does not let that prevent a child from participating. “We never say to a child, ‘Your dues are not paid so you can't take class today,’” says Ms. Morel-Betances.

Long term, Ms. Morel-Betances hopes the band can help the children develop skills applicable to other realms of their life. “I hope it offers them opportunities for travel or new experiences they might not otherwise have had; I hope it raises their self-esteem. And I hope it offers opportunities for education as well,” says Ms. Morel-Betances.

The group rewards academic achievement by providing free lunch at rehearsals to participants who earn straight A’s. It also recognizes and rewards achievement both inside and outside the band in other ways, including through an annual award ceremony.

Most important, Ms. Morel-Betances wants to create a positive support system for the group, in addition to—or sometimes in substitution for—what they might have at home.  She looks out for those with leadership potential and tries to encourage them.

“Right now, there are at least two young ladies who exhibit a lot of leadership skills, but to be a leader, you have to be a role model.  How you behave and live your life has to be exemplary. We look for those with leadership potential and try to instill in them the values of a leader.  We ask them, what do you think are the expectations of a leader?  What makes a good leader? And what is expected of you, in particular, as a leader?  It’s to make them think about how, in many ways, who I am is who I am perceived to be.  If you get that message early in life, it saves you a lot of pain,” says Ms. Morel Betances, laughing.

At some fundamental level, these are the same skills she teaches through the Learning Academy to ColumbiaDoctors staff.

“We teach that if you take time for these personal improvement skills—using emotional intelligence in all aspects of your job and life—personal improvement can make you the captain of your own ship,” she says. “The same attitudes and skills apply, whether you’re working in a health-care facility or leading a marching band.”