Seven years ago, I quit acting in New York and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a producer. I landed at a small management and production company, where one of the requirements was that we volunteer as mentors at the Young Storytellers Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the head of the company.
Every Tuesday at lunch, I would turn off my Blackberry (this was pre-iPhone, mind you) and head over to a nearby elementary school. One yellow visitor pass and a walk through the playground later, and I was transported to another world. A world where the cares of Hollywood—status, deals, power -—were eclipsed by what were fast becoming (to my mind) the lost foundation of the entertainment business: creativity, love of story, risk, and imagination.
It took a fifth-grade student named Brandon to remind me of this. Week after week, we worked together as he imagined, outlined and wrote a six-page screenplay. These were consistently the best hours of my week. Later, professional actors came into the school when we were finished and performed his script in front of his parents, family and friends. And while the actors were great and the show was amazing, it was the smile on Brandon’s face that moved me most.
So much so that later that year I walked into my boss’ office and told him I wanted to quit and work for his nonprofit. I did this not because I thought that I should begin working to create a new generation of Hollywood power players, but because Brandon’s smile reminded me of the role the arts had played in my own education. I wanted to make sure that students in public schools didn’t lose the opportunity that I, and everyone I know, had.
Now, about 3,500 students and screenplays later, I am the Executive Director of YSF. Over the last seven years, I’ve watched as arts education in this country, and especially in Los Angeles, has continued to be marginalized within our educational system. Sadly, many of our schools lack the resources to give students the full educational experience they deserve.
It’s the mission of the Young Storytellers Foundation to bridge this divide—a gap that is too often found in our poorest and more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, where lower levels of college education exist among parents, where many students are first-generation Americans lacking literacy skills, and where mandated testing unwittingly wipes the arts off the educational map. At YSF, we believe that every child has a story worth telling. We bring volunteers into the classroom to ensure that these stories are heard.
We do this because there are any number of studies that prove that arts education is a necessity for our children’s success. We do this because in order to give all children a tomorrow, where they have the opportunity to advance academically, they must have the chance to undergo a process of discovery where they can find a part of themselves that can succeed and excel.
We do this because we want a future with higher graduation rates and matriculation to college. We do this so children are given a means of expression to resolve inner and external conflicts. We do this so that no matter where you go to school, be it the most affluent private academy or a public school in Inglewood, you are given the tools and opportunities to succeed.
And this “we” which I speak of is not the small staff of four that runs YSF, it is the thousands of volunteer mentors and actors who make our programs possible. As long as we continue work that gives children a voice and a means of creative expression, none of us can be silenced by budgets, tests, dropout rates, overburdened educational systems, and government bureaucracy.
Should you like a reminder that every child has a story worth telling, and you live in Los Angeles, drop by a Young Storytellers session at an elementary school. We promise that once you slap that visitor badge on and cross the schoolyard, you too will be transported by the world of possibility that a child’s imagination and an adult who cares can provide.