How one program is helping teens to find their voice, and put it to use
With their junior year of high school behind them, Leah Whitehead and Jack Eiselt spent their first day of summer break holed up in the Cotswold Starbucks discussing the four “A’s”: Attitude, Acceptance, Accountability, and Action. These are four central principles that guide Playing For Others (PFO), a teen development program that combines leadership training, buddy programs, and the arts.
Leah and Jack are not your typical teenagers; perhaps because PFO, of which they are the incoming co-presidents, is not your typical organization. With cell phones nowhere in sight, they look adults in the eye when they speak and do so thoughtfully and intelligently, with grace and confidence.
Jack came into PFO shy and closed off, but he was drawn to the theater and music opportunities offered by the program. Without intending to, he found much more.
“I was encouraged to be open and expand my personal interests. 99% of my confidence came through PFO and PFO activities,” says Jack.
Those activities and their interconnectedness are offered thanks to the vision of Jen Band, PFO’s Executive Director and Founder. Throughout and after college, Jen worked at a variety of camps for kids with special needs, ran children’s theater groups, and participated in performing arts programs that raised money for the community. She felt at home in each role, but knew something was missing. So she put them all together.
What started as an arts based buddy program pairing teens alongside kids with special needs to engage in performing arts, has grown to become a nationally unique nonprofit that encourages teens to become passionate leaders who rally for inclusion and diversity, and who understand what it takes to run a philanthropic organization that can create change.
While the buddy program remains one of the three key program components, PFO also includes a vibrant leadership curriculum that combines the expertise of top leadership professionals with teen-driven training and peer review, and arts exploration, in which teens work alongside arts professionals and peers to create original artwork, perform musical theater, learn advanced photographic and design skills, and tackle songwriting and choreography.
In perhaps the most unique yet natural twist, participating teens use what they learn in these three areas to, effectively, run the organization themselves. In committees and small groups, they help make key decisions for PFO, create activities for their buddies, organize events large and small, brainstorm marketing plans, create ongoing PFO displays in three dimensions and online, develop pitches to potential corporate sponsors, write and produce videos, and encourage, empower and inspire their peers.
It was developing and delivering corporate pitches where Jack and Leah gained what is a palpable, comfortable-in-their-own-skin confidence. In an evolved perspective that any development executive could appreciate, Leah shares, “Corporate sponsorship is not begging for money. It’s giving people the opportunity to support something cool.”
In another dose of unrealized enlightenment, past co-president, Daniel Morrice talks about how they’ve learned the importance of feedback in corporate sponsor pitches. “After we give a presentation, we ask right then and there what they thought and what we could do better next time,” says Daniel.
Over the last year, the teens raised $25,000 in corporate sponsorships and $30,000 in future commitments. A good portion of that money goes back to the buddy program partnering organizations.
“The thing that most impresses me about PFO is that these teens have already learned one of life’s most important lessons. They know how to give and to focus on the needs of others,” says Bill Crowder, whose company, Crowder Construction, is PFO’s first and ongoing corporate sponsor. “In the process of doing that they develop leadership and organizational skills, they expand and hone their creative talents, and they learn how to interact in a very mature manner… Our entire community will be a better place for their experience.”
In their committees and peer led “Life Talks”, PFO teens talk about strengths and challenges, personal accountability and choices, self-awareness, emotional footprints, healthy vs. unhealthy relationships and defining what that is for yourself. When an event, performance, or pitch doesn’t go well, they refer to it as “failing forward” and appreciate the lesson. There seems to be little to no recognition of how advanced these topics, language, and ideals are for a group of teenagers. To this group, it’s the norm.
It causes some pause; how do these teens relate and interact with their peers at school?
Leah and Jack say they simply try to focus on one of the four “big A’s” – Action. They believe in the ripple effect and strive to live by example with loving, accepting, and caring actions.
Leah Whitehead (left) and PFO teens
Graduating former co-president Kaitlin Wightman-Ausman, says she’s seen PFO’s principle of “people first” language spread around school peers. “People first” language became a point of intentional discussion through their experience with the buddy program – Kaitlin’s favorite part of the PFO program. Instead of saying, an autistic boy, it’s a boy with autism.
“It’s amazing how much the details of language affect things, and how that language affects kids with disabilities,” says Kaitlin.
Jack says that people first language has become somewhat of a movement at Myers Park High School. “The word,retarded is really looked down upon at my school,” he says. Jack noticed that the word was in the lyrics of a song played during the morning announcements. He emailed his principal to point out the derogatory context and the next day the word was censored from the song.
Each year, PFO accepts applications from teens interested in the program. They can’t accept all who apply. This year, 70 – 80 teens were invited to interview from hundreds of applications. From that group, 39 teens were accepted.
“We try to bring the most diverse group to the table,” says Jen. “Diversity means diversity of schools, race, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures. Presently they have 74 teens from 25 different Charlotte area schools.
“Our goal is to have 30 different schools represented,” says Leah. “We need all types of perspectives in order to really live our mission and create a safe space.”
“It would be boring otherwise,” says Jack.
With the impact they are having on the community, each other, and whether they realize it or not, their futures, the last thing this group has to worry about is boredom.
Photo credits – Jim McGuire