I was surprised to learn, while volunteering as a teaching assistant for severely underprivileged students at St. Louis Aim High, that the students I was trying to tutor did not have even the basic tools to succeed and excel in school. In August 2013, I co-founded Performing for Pencils, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides disadvantaged school students with the basic school supplies they need to be successful learners. As an actor and dancer, I was inspired to combine my love for the arts and education to gather fellow performers from across the St. Louis area to host an annual high school community talent show. Through our efforts, Performing for Pencils provided critical financial support to struggling schools, as well as having raised important awareness of social justice issues, and building bridges across racial and socioeconomic divisions in a city torn apart by violence and distrust. Performing for Pencils is currently expanding to the Chicago area and has raised $35,000 since 2014.
Receiving the 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for Performing for Pencils (PFP) infused me with joy, energy, and inspiration. Building a charity from scratch with nothing more than lofty ideas, a tireless work ethic, and a passion for helping others is a daunting task. Endorsement from the incredibly generous and magnanimous Helen Diller Family Foundation provides me with the support and encouragement needed to sustain PFP and helps its expansion into other cities.
Each year, school districts throughout the nation have less and less money to spend on school supplies. As a result, the burden on families to provide supplies to their children mounts. When families have to choose between buying school supplies or purchasing food, an untenable situation exists. Children from disadvantaged environments are being denied equal access to educational opportunities. I cannot express how thrilled I am that the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards Committee has helped put this issue on the map by selecting me as an award recipient this year.
Bringing together students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to address this problem has been a tremendously rewarding effect of PFP. The lack of essential school supplies in high-poverty areas in St. Louis is staggering, and the fact that we have tackled this by building bridges of racial understanding is exhilarating. Prior to PFP, most students and parents at our high school had no interaction with black students or their families, while the students across town at minority-dominated schools had little or no interaction with the white community. PFP brings the races together to collaborate in music, dance, acting, comedy, and all facets of stage performance. PFP forms the bond. It has created opportunities for students to heal racial divisions and build lasting alliances and friendships among different racial and cultural groups.
The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award money will enable me to attend college, where I can introduce other motivated young adults to PFP and start a branch on campus. Gathering together other college students with a passion for performing to address the critical need to provide school supplies to children who cannot afford them is paramount to my college-bound goals. It is amazing how adolescents can and do make a difference in the lives of others when they put their minds to it. Together, we can support educational opportunities for those in need and battle this pressing issue one pencil at a time.