Students of an Otis College of Art and Design course that has worked on art projects in the Westchester area are now reaching beyond the community with their efforts to an island nation devastated by an earthquake.

NeighborGapBridge, part of the Integrated Learning Department at Otis’ Westchester campus, is a course that enables student artists to make connections through projects in the immediate neighborhood and beyond. The course series has partnered with such local organizations as the Westchester Senior Citizens Center, the Custom Hotel, Loyola Village Elementary School and the Westchester Loyola Branch Library.

According to the college, students are encouraged to apply what they have learned from the small neighborhood experience to the “broader fabric of culture” by proposing “bridges” that extend beyond the neighborhood connecting a broad array of people, nations and cultures.

This semester the course is working to extend far beyond the community for the first time by bringing its artistic contributions to the island nation of Haiti, which was ravaged in January by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that decimated the infrastructure of capital Port au Prince and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Through the project, Otis students in the NeighborGapBridge class have created hand-made knapsacks that will be filled with art supplies collected from the community and donated to children in Haiti.

Patricia Kovic, assistant professor at Otis College who teaches NeighborGapBridge, said her class is dedicated to proposing new helping models within the neighborhood and they wanted to make some type of contribution to the people affected by the earthquake.

“Traditionally, we have worked on projects benefiting our neighbors in Westchester, like the Loyola Branch Library and Westchester Senior Center,” Kovic said. “We were all so affected by the devastating earthquake in Haiti earlier this year that we wanted to create a project to bridge our community with people in need in Haiti.”

The colorful knapsacks, which are made out of re-purposed materials such as secondhand T-shirts, are on display as part of an art installation called “Haiti Bridge” in the nearby Custom Hotel’s new Scribble Gallery adjacent to the Bistrotek restaurant. The students, who used the T-shirts to break down into material that was woven into the knapsacks, unveiled their works to the public during an event at the hotel April 30th.

The exhibit, presented throughout the month of May, also features pictures of the artists creating the pieces and the looms on which they wove the T-shirts into cloth. In addition, the Custom Hotel has set up drawing desks in the gallery to allow visitors to represent their own interpretation of the art installation.

Gnell Abracosa, Custom Hotel general manager, said the hotel is thrilled to partner with Otis on the Haiti Bridge project and plans to do other art shows during the year in the new gallery that are curated by Otis or other local galleries. While the hotel and college have collaborated on other community projects, this is the first one that will reach out globally, she said.

“For a cultural match for Otis and Custom Hotel, it’s perfect,” Abracosa said of the project to donate knapsacks to Haiti.

“As one of our closest neighbors, they have been fantastic collaborators in the past, and we are happy to donate our space in order to bring more attention to the important work they’re doing with Haiti Bridge.”

In collaboration with Compassionate Response, a Philadelphia-based organization that takes part in humanitarian efforts in areas affected by disasters, the knapsacks will be sent to Haitian children in a global art therapy program following the closure of the exhibit. The children, who may have lost all of their valuables in the devastation, will be given the hand-made bags to carry items such as school supplies and books, and each sack has a place for their name under “Mwen Rele,” Haitian for “my name is.”

Many of the materials that were used for the backpacks and the art supplies that will go into them were donated from Westchester businesses and neighbors, Kovic said. Students have also placed postcards inside their bags to allow the Haitian youngsters to communicate with their American donors. The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation also supported the project with a grant and will supply children’s books for the knapsacks, Kovic said.

Kovic said she was proud of the students’ work in creating the knapsacks and how they expressed themselves in the designs.

“I think they really reflect the personality and inner life of each student,” she described of the pieces.

Dani Manning, a junior at Otis, said one of the things she enjoyed most about the project was visiting with students at Loyola Village Elementary who expressed excitement at the art project and tested the backpacks to ensure they were the right size for similar age youngsters. Manning, who called Haiti Bridge “an amazing experience” said the effort allows those involved to tell the Haitian people that they care.

“Hopefully this lets them know that people care, that more help is coming and that people are not going to forget what happened to them,” she said.

Loyola Village Principal Melinda Goodall explained that during the Otis class’ visit, Loyola Village students were able to weave some fabrics for the knapsacks with the direction of the Otis students. The school values the collaboration with the college and was pleased to participate in such a project, she said.

“It was a great opportunity for our students to demonstrate caring and to help those in need,” Goodall said. “I’m very pleased the students of Loyola Village could support the relief effort to improve the lives of children in Haiti.”

Catarina Gates, a junior at Otis, said the knapsacks might be something simple but they are a nice gesture to a young person in another country who may have lost everything.

“I think it’s important that the arts can contribute back to the community whether it be local or global and it’s kind of refreshing to have something that can do that,” Gates said.