As an employee of Berklee College of Music I was able to apply, and was graciously selected, for the Gracenotes volunteer committee’s annual trip. This year we went to New Mexico to help build houses with Sante Fe’s Habitat for Humanity. These are a few things I learned along the way…

1. George RR Martin seems to be a great guy

As a former tourist turned resident, Martin has been an immeasurable help to the arts, film, and music culture of Santa Fe. I had figured he was British, what with all the castles and dragons and such, but he’s actually from Jersey. I think that’s as far from British as you can get. Anyway, the Jean Cocteau Theater was opened in the 70s, and had remained vacant for 8 years when Martin came along and bought it. He had it completely renovated and reopened in 2013. It’s a single screen theatre curated with independant films, showing a few different films a week.

Even more, almost infinitely more, impressive is Meow Wolf. They’re an art collective, and Martin bought them a 20,000 sq ft former bowling alley to build an immersive and interactive art installation and music venue. I am not eloquent enough in my prose to describe this place. You can watch this video: The Meow Wolf Experience but I would fly to Santa Fe for a day or two just for this. Don’t spoil it with the video if you plan on going! In a state with major funding issues for the arts such as New Mexico, in an area with an aging population, Martin’s philanthropy has created a culture of modern art that young people can identify with.

2. Chillies are red or green but never both

New Mexico also has a chili culture. The peppers are either red chilles or green chillies and the locals in my experience were very passionate about which was their favorite. “Red or Green?” I was told is the New Mexico state question. The food everywhere was amazing with chili rellenos, which is a stuffed chili pepper fried, being a very spicy local specialty. Usually the chillies are dried, ground down, and turned into a sauce that is then put on nearly anything and I think I would eat my own shoe if it was covered in chili sauce. Santa Fe is worth a trip just to go eat at all of the locally owned and run restaurants and carts.

3. Prarie dogs talk about you

So one night I was running to the grocery store down the street from our hotel. I saw a man at the edge of the parking lot taking pictures of a Prairie Dog and making notes in a haggard notebook. Turns out he was studying local Prairie Dogs and we struck up a conversation. Apparently Prairie Dogs have one of the most complex languages in the animal kingdom and someone has deciphered it. They’re able to describe to others in their social group that see, say, a tall thin man with a blue shirt is approaching slowly with a camera. All in a 10th of second chirp. And there is a computer program that can do these translations from audio clips. Cool stuff. It’s worth a trip to Santa Fe just to see Prairie Dogs and know they’re judging you.

4. Tent rocks  exist in Turkey and New Mexico

We had a wonderful off day on our trip and we chose to use it for a hike. Matthias, the best trip leader ever, drove our group an hour outside of Santa Fe to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Breathtaking canyons and a perfect quick hike lead us to an expansive ridge overlook point. The Tent Rocks themselves were created over millions of years as layers of sand, gravel, and volcanic ash were deposited and compressed and then worn through by the wind. They’re incredibly rare formations, existing only at this location and in Turkey. It’s worth a trip to New Mexico for all the beautiful hiking/backpacking, especially in the National Forests in the northern part of the State.

5. Housing comes first

As mentioned, the real reason for and most rewarding part of our trip was to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Providing someone with stable living is the single best thing you can do for their success in the workforce. My amazing crew of Berklee colleagues took a week to work side-by-side with the eventual home owners and local crew of amazing men and women. A good number of the crew were full-time volunteers through Americorps, a national service I had never heard of prior. They work in disaster relief, environmental stewardship, education and more, including working with Habitat. For the eventual homeowners the requirements to be selected are very strict and it’s amazing to see these folks overcoming monetary and logistical challenges, while putting in over 500 hours of work into their own homes. During the week we all worked so well as a team, and with the purpose of doing quality and lasting work to positively impact the community. Owing to that, I think we got a lot done in the hours and days we were there, and can’t wait for updates on when the homes are finished. This experienced showed me it’s worth volunteering and helping those in need whenever you are able.

To wrap it up, I am terrifically grateful for Berklee and the opportunity. I am also thankful for how awesome my colleagues on this trip were and can confidently say a great time was had by all. In these tumultuous times, I believe it’s more important than ever to help those we can and to have a positive influence on those around us.


Jeremy Miller (left)
Berklee Online Academic Advisor
Guitarist, Berklee Alum