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Teens putting arts to work for others

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Jen Band

Jen Band

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three years ago, in a summer job at Victory Junction, a camp in Randleman for kids who are chronically or terminally ill, Jen Band was working with teen boys who were burn survivors.

“Those kids live every day like it’s their last,” says Band, who during the school year worked on children’s-theater projects in Charlotte. “I wanted to infuse that in the teens I was working with.”

After returning to Charlotte that fall, Band founded Playing for Others, a nonprofit that uses the arts to get teens involved with children with disabilities and nonprofits that serve them.

Teens who participate in the nine-month program begin with a four-day retreat at which they learn about the nonprofit that Playing for Others is partnering with that year.

Once a month, the teens work on arts projects with “buddy” kids at the partner agency.

They also raise money for the partner agency; prepare a theater, music or visual arts “experience” that Playing for Others showcases each March; and serve on one of a handful of committees that focus on tasks to help them “learn the business side of the nonprofit world,” says Band.

Those tasks include designing costumes and promotional merchandise; writing news releases and working with the media; organizing a silent auction to raise money for the partner agency; organizing social get-togethers; handling merchandise for the March show; and organizing a display of photographs about the organization.

The teens also set personal goals to raise money from their families and friends, and from corporations, to support the partner agency.

The first year, for example, 47 teens raised $22,000 for Lifespan, a group that works with children and adults with developmental disabilities.

“These kids had to market and sell tickets and do creative work and spend their free time practicing and performing,” says Nancy McEneny, director of community affairs and development at Lifespan and a new board member at Playing for Others.

“It’s incredible to be partnered,” she says, “and see these young people with their dramatic action and see them serving as role models for the children.”

In its second year, Playing for Others enlisted 50 teens who raised $25,000 for the Down Syndrome Association of Charlotte, and in its most recent year, the group enlisted 60 teens who raised $15,000 for Easter Seals United Cerebral Palsy North Carolina.

In the coming year, Playing for Others will recruit 75 teens and partner with Mitey Riders, a horse-therapy farm in Waxhaw for children with disabilities.

The most recent program culminated in a four-day arts festival in March at the Neighborhood Theater in North Davidson that included a concert featuring songs that teens wrote and performed; a display of visual artworks the teens created; and a performance of the musical Honk the teens staged.

At the performance, the teens’ buddies arrived in limousines, were greeted on a red carpet by “paparazzi,” and were escorted to the front row of the theater for the performance.

And on May 19, the teens and their families were treated to a banquet at Stonebridge Community Church.

“They’re looking at people differently,” says Band. “They’re learning the business skills of a nonprofit, which will take them far in life. They’re learning about communication, about following up and following through, about teamwork.

“And they’re learning about compassion, about putting passion into action,” she says, “and about the power of the arts, and using the arts, not just for yourself, but to benefit someone else.”

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