18 Dec “Building Trust is a Huge Deal” – Interview with Dr. Lester Shaw
Our latest Fun-lanthropy donation was given to A Pocket Full of Hope. This arts and education nonprofit offers a life-changing experience to at-risk youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Lester Shaw, founder and executive director of A Pocket Full of Hope, to ask him a few questions about helping kids, directing plays and an ever-expanding audience.
Could you explain what A Pocketful of Hope is and how it helps kids?
A Pocketful of Hope is a nonprofit 501c3 organization that was organized to help youth develop life and learning skills using music, theatre, dance, video, photography and social responsibility training.
That means a curriculum that basically teaches kids social skills, being socially responsible, helping them to identify and develop their strengths and weaknesses so they can make good quality life choices. It’s also designed to help them do different activities like create timelines (up to now) of things they’ve done, the barriers they’ve experienced to accomplishments and how they’ve overcome them.
We’ve found that no matter how talented a person is, oftentimes they may have some drawbacks as far as developing relationships, creating a network, and identifying who they are. I’ve seen people who were painfully shy—on stage they give a good performance, but as soon as they get off they’re more introverted.
What was the genesis of A Pocketful of Hope? How did you come to see a need for something like this?
I worked at a nonprofit before I founded PFoH. I was working in a section 13 housing complex with programs for kids. I found one common denominator of connecting people is music. We felt like this was a good tool to use to first get kids involved. There’s a saying that goes, “First you enliven, then you enlighten.” In other words, you get people to come in and sing, dance and have a good time together. They come to life; everybody’s connected. And then you find out what they need to know and let them know what the future could look like for them. We target the needs of each individual child, whether it’s tutoring or special skills they need to develop. But first coming together and building trust is a huge deal.
It’s strength-based…based on what they can do. Once they’re allowed to do what they can do, they have the confidence to tackle what they need to work on.
You mentioned theater as one of the skills the kids learn. I heard you recently put on a play?
It was not just a play—it was an entire production which included some acting, some singing and some dancing. We performed a four-segment medley from Broadway musicals— it started with The Lion King, into Annie, then moved from that to Dream Girls and finally to The Wiz. Then we switched to an original song, “If There Ain’t No Beauty, Make Some.”
Everybody loves “Hard Knock Life” from Annie. Then we did a segment from Dream Girls that was really fun. And then “Ease on Down the Road” with Dorothy and the Lion from The Wiz, and “A Brand New Day” song where they’re freed.
It was amazing. Including performers and tech, it was about 40 people who put this on. When we do major productions, we can have up to 150 kids. Some of our productions are original stuff. We’ve done The Wiz about 3 times. We’ve done Finding Nemo! We do Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the whole production from when he and the girl are walking all the way through the zombie dance. We actually film half of that, and then when they walk on stage, it’s like they’re just walking off the screen.
What is the process like? How do the kids respond to learning their parts?
When you’re first starting, everyone kind of plays around a little bit. So we separated Justin (Ridgel) and his partner while they were learning their parts. Then when they came back and did their parts together, it kind of set it off. They inspired everybody else to get serious about the part that they had. It was amazing to see how people fed off their energy. They were so invested in their characters. Then when they had somebody to model it, they realized, “Wow, this could be really good!”
They started kind of competing with each other to be the best. On one side you had Justin over there rehearsing “Hakuna Matata.” Then kids from Annie see how well they’re doing, and were like, “Oh, we gotta get together now.” They really started putting it together. It’s not like a competition, but they wanted that same reaction that Justin and them got. They wanted that. It made the rehearsal and the show really, really good…the energy level was up, people really bought into their characters, it was real cool.
It was amazing to see that happen. Even after the show, a couple kids came up to me and asked, “How did we do? I thought I overdid it, I was dancing real hard.” I laughed. “That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
It’s so much fun working with these kids, man. For some reason, this group really, really likes each other. They are just all into each other, talking, showing stuff, laughing. And then when it’s time to really get serious, you have to reel them in. But it’s a real good energy.
Clearly the kids have fun and get a lot out of the productions. How does the audience react?
We have so many different reactions. We have parents and friends of the kids, friends of the parents, we have people … we’ve been doing this for 15 years, so we have some dedicated fans and followers. But every year we pick up some new people. We’re busting out at the seams. We’re trying to get this new facility finished because we just don’t have room for everybody.
Then we have our movies (Best New Movie for Youth, Best New Short Movie in Oklahoma) and music videos, which are bringing more and more attention to what we’re doing. We get calls all day, every day from parents who want to know how to get their kids involved.
How can people support A Pocketful of Hope?
We have a donation button on our website. They can make donations, they can get into our capital campaign for costumes, or help us to finish the new facility. The building is the old Big 10 ballroom…it’s 14k square feet. In the early 1950s and 60s it was a major music venue. Ike and Tina Turner played there. So did James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles.
We’re real close to finishing. We’ve got a new roof, the plumbing is in, we’re working on electrical wiring and we just got money for the sprinkler system to be installed. Now we’re trying to fund the heating, air conditioning and the parking lot. People can donate either to that or to programs.
We divided Jason’s Fun-lanthropy donation into kids’ programs and capital. He has asked me if we need a partner, and we really do. We need a dedicated sponsor. That would be like the greatest thing ever.
Do you see A Pocketful of Hope expanding down the road? Where might the organization be in the future?
We’ve been developing out as a national model. We want to be Pockets of Hope in various places, places that were once considered slum and blight. It’s almost like when you see a sidewalk and you see a plant growing out of the sidewalk, it’s like, “Wow, lookout there.” We want to be pockets of hope in every city. We’re starting here. We have a 100% high school graduation rate among program participants.
I get calls from people outside of this area who really want to know how we’re doing it. I researched and did my dissertation on the kids in our program, and one of the things my study focused on was how kids learn. That’s been a major plus. Because people tell kids, “Hey, go to school, get an education,” but then you ask kids what that means and they don’t know. So our job is to create pathways for kids to learn.
One of the things I talk about in my research is defining “at-risk.” We have to narrow it down. Kids at risk are at risk of what? Dropping out? Getting shot? For us it’s dropping out of school. So now we’re able to focus on building these pathways, letting them know how they learn, which is part of the learning strategy. This allows them to have a more proactive approach to how they learn.
Gaining this new insight into how kids learn has been a major, major plus for us. The music, theatre, dance and photography gets them in there, but then we look at this holistic approach for kids. They may need a little counseling for something traumatic they’re blocking. They may need tutoring. We have people who are licensed therapists, we go to their school, we do home visits. So we’re all in. That’s what you have to be—realize the schools can’t do it all, churches can’t do it all, parents can’t do it all. We want to be that bridge of understanding where we can stick with them. This is an old-school approach. We’re all connected. If something happens with them at school, the school calls me. We’re all in. And that’s what it takes.