Joe Griffith unwinds a blue scarf as he settles into a corner spot at a downtown coffee shop. It’s not his regular haunt, though. That distinction goes to Walter’s Coffee & Speakeasy, the hip new spot in The Heights that Griffith and his band of coffee bean brothers made their new home after the neighborhood Starbucks closed.
Nonetheless, he appears right at home here, an hour-and-a-half drive from his actual home on a farm outside of Holly Grove in Monroe County, the heart of the Arkansas Delta.
Today, like many days, duty calls Griffith to Little Rock. There are meetings to be had, problems to be solved and causes to be championed. And as the new board president for the Thea Foundation, Griffith can’t seem to shout its worth loud enough.
The bad news, of course, is that by now most know the heartbreaking story of Thea Leopoulos, the 17-year-old for whom art was the catalyst for a full shift in morale and outlook, and who was in a fatal car accident in 2001.
People have heard the stories of how Thea’s below-average grades took a sharp turn when she became involved in drama, dance, visual art and creative writing. They’ve heard how her family soon saw an “uplifted attitude, zealous involvement in school organizations and extracurricular activities, good grades and boosted confidence.”
The good news, of course, is that so many know Thea Leopoulos’ story because her family chose to honor her memory by spreading the gospel of arts education. Now, nearly 20 years later, more than 30,000 children are affected every year by the foundation that bears her name.
What might have begun as a movement meaningful to family and close friends has made its way into the hearts and minds of people near and far. And Griffith is one of them.
It began with an invitation to what was then the Governor’s Culinary Challenge, now the Blue Plate Special, a night showcasing the skills of top area chefs. After attending a handful of Thea Foundation events, Griffith became intrigued by the organization’s mission and wanted to learn more.
“I listened to one of Paul’s presentations and it really caught my ear what they were doing for these kids,” Griffith says of Thea’s father and foundation executive director Paul Leopoulos. “The confidence-building, the scholarships, the opportunities they’re giving students, it’s unbelievable.”
Thea Foundation Scholarships
In 2017-18 school year:
• 30 scholarship recipients
• 6 arts categories
• 3 additional creative writing scholarships
• 3 additional spoken word/slam poetry scholarships
• $1K in both creative writing and spoken word/slam poetry scholarships
► $97,400 total awarded
► 36 scholarship recipients
Most of the foundation’s efforts fall under four categories: scholarships, hands-on courses in Arkansas schools, stocking teachers’ art supply closets and local events.
According to Leopoulos, the in-school programs are designed to be a direct intervention in a student’s day, an effort to “reverse the tide of schools getting rid of the arts out of their school culture” often because of shifting state regulations or budget cuts.
Those in favor of the cuts often cite statistics about the unlikelihood of students becoming professional artists, but those concerns, according to Thea supporters, miss the point.
“In terms of promoting the arts versus business sense, if we can give these kids a shot at everything, we will,” Griffith says. “We’re not trying to make artists. Their art is a way for them to get a scholarship, and then they can be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever they want. If nothing else, it’s a confidence-builder, a way to connect.”
In the 2018-19 school year, the Thea Foundation will offer 36 scholarships to Arkansas seniors — six more than in years prior — in six categories: visual arts, performing arts, creative writing, slam poetry, fashion design and film. And with every four-year school in the state matching these scholarships, it helps shift the paradigm for kids who struggle or don’t see a reason to try in school.
“There’s a lot more to education than six and six is 12 or diagramming sentences,” Griffith says. “You get the mind stimulated by the arts and it all starts to relate — math, grammar, art. It changes the way you think, and when it clicks, it gives these students a reason to show up.”
Thea’s Art Closet
In 2017-18 school year:
• $65,068 given
• 71 projects
• 13,958 students directly impacted
As of Jan. 28, 2019:
• $46,960 given
• 93 projects
• 22,044 students directly impacted
Although he has no personal connection to any of the scholarship winners, Griffith knows firsthand the difference the arts can make. An artist in his own right, Griffith learned how to play the saxophone by ear as a child, an ear for music he inherited from his musician mother and has now passed on to his daughter, who’s pursuing a music career in Nashville.
“Art changes everything. I’ve seen it. I watch my daughter write song after song and I’ve seen how happy it makes her. I can’t help but think of her when I see these kids and wish we could’ve given her that confidence, that feeling of accomplishment these programs help them discover.”
Some of those former students will have the chance to demonstrate their talents at Thea Foundation’s fifth annual Into the Blue, a fundraiser so well-attended that the foundation had to split it into two events this year, Resonate and An Evening of Entertainment.
But it’s not about the extravagance or number of events the foundation hosts. For arts advocates, the connection runs much deeper than a swanky cocktail hour.
“Once people witness the stories of young people who have found their confidence through the arts and harnessed that confidence to become actors, doctors, engineers, musicians, teachers or whatever they wanted to be, they realize examples in their own lives of how the arts and how Thea’s programs are impacting young people they know,” Leopoulos says. “That’s what really motivates our supporters and draws people to Into the Blue and to Thea Foundation to help us advocate the arts in the development of young people across Arkansas.”
It’s as true for Griffith as it is for countless others. They watch children express their thoughts and feelings on complex topics like race, gender, sexuality — topics many adults have trouble packaging into knowledgeable sentiments. They see change, real change, and resolve to do everything in their power to help it grow.
“You might think I’m just an old redneck from east Arkansas,” Griffith says, “but I’ve traveled and I’ve seen my share. It’s fascinating what’s in the minds of these kids, and we can’t take it for granted.”
Into the Blue: Resonate
April 6, 6 p.m. | The Junior League of Little Rock
Into the Blue: An Evening of Entertainment
May 18, 6:30 p.m. | UA-Pulaski Tech CHARTS Theater