In early 2010, I volunteered for four months at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama.
It’s called BAMA Kids.
I’d show up at 3:15p, just before the kids came tumbling out of the school buses and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them helping and fixing — helping with homework, fixing a broken basketball hoop, helping tie a shoe, fixing a snack.
I became reacquainted with 4th and 5th grade math. I instigated drawing challenges and coloring contests. I did a lot of just being there and showing up, day after day. As Zadie Smith wrote, "Time is how you spend your love."
A little context about this corner of our country
The median income for a household in the county was $16,646, and the median income for a family was $22,200. Males had a median income of $26,216 versus $17,274 for females. The per capita income for the county was $10,903. About 36.10% of families and 39.90% of the population were below the poverty line, including 48.40% of those under age 18 and 32.10% of those age 65 or over.he median income for a household in Wilcox County was $16,646. About 48% of people under the age of 18 live below the poverty line.
All public schools in the county are operated by the Wilcox County School District. It is also served by one private school, Wilcox Academy, founded in 1970 as a segregation academy. The public schools are effectively all-Black. Both the Wilcox County Schoo District schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.”
Let these realities about Wilcox County sink in — the population is 72% black / 26% white, 48% of kids live below the poverty line, the public schools in the county are failing. And then realize that this is a very rural area. High speed internet is not a given. Access to a public library or any other public social service means you have to have a car or a person in your family who has a car. That’s not a given, either.
Enter BAMA kids
BAMA Kids is the only program of its kind in this community. Started in 1993 by a group of volunteers and concerned parents, its goal is to give kids a safe and fun place to go at the end of the school day. Here, they learn, grow, and feel the love and support of positive role models and mentors. BAMA Kids get the encouragement they need to make good decisions and live healthy, successful lives.
Adding a few Broadway stars to the mix, or: 1 + 1 = 3
In March 2013, I invited the theater group Zara Aina (ZA) to come down to Alabama and work with the BAMA Kids for a week.
Zara Aina is a Malagasy (Madagascar) phrase that means "share life." Started by two Broadway actors and based in NYC, its mission is to use theater, storytelling, and performance to help at-risk children to recognize their potential. It was a no-brainer to unite these two awesome organizations. I saw the opportunity and made it happen.
In one week, the ZA actors and I collaborated with the BAMA Kids to create an amazing piece of theater — a shadow puppet musical of sorts. The kids wrote the lyrics to our songs. I wrote the music. The ZA crew coached the kids to create everything else -- the story, the acting, the costumes, the set, the shadow puppets, etc. It was busy and fun with a lot of goofing around and improv-ing.
Here are just a few scenes from that week ...
After a long week of creating and rehearsing, on a spring Sunday afternoon, the kids put on a spirited public performance of their show at the middle school!
Parents came and cheered. The local radio station broadcast from under a big oak tree outside. Someone set up a barbecue and after the show there were ribs and chicken for all.
It was an unqualified success and love fest.
And that was just the beginning
This little project of mine has always been a “we” thing.
I couldn’t have started it without Ms. Threadgill and Ms. Hives — the lifeblood of BAMA Kids. I couldn’t have created a week of arts for the kids without Lucas Caleb Rooney, Bryce Pinkham and the whole Zara Aina team being a thing that existed in the world and the kind of people who say “HELL YES” to just such adventures! And I couldn’t have done it without YOU. Yes, you.
Though I’ve personally spent hours and hours of heart-time and head-time planning and creating the connections that allow these trip be successful, it has been the financial generosity of my fans and friends that have made the four-trips-and-counting happen. Together we’ve raised over $25,000 to create art and change kids lives in Wilcox County, Alabama.
The video below attempts to capture what we do down there. Watch it and multiply what you feel by 100. And you get a sense of what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what more there is to do.
For the record and for fun here are the videos we made for our other trips to BAMA Kids:
November 2017 trip to work with the student leaders
If you’re moved by what you’ve seen so far and would like to donate, please click here.
In 2018, I wanted Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives to know how much we love and recognize them for their unwavering support of and years of dedication to the kids of Wilcox County.
So I reached into my own pocket and flew them to NYC to have a couple days on the town and receive The Zara Aina Award for Planet Earth’s Greatest Citizens at a Broadway star-studded event at the legendary Joe’s Pub. Here’s the celebratory video we created to kick off their night…
I am deeply grateful for everyone who has shared this journey with me.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.
It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.
It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
— Melody Beattie
To donate and help keep the BAMA Kids making theater and art with the current and future stars of Broadway and beyond, please click here.