For 20 years, Paul Leopoulos has gone to work and honored his daughter.
Through the Thea Foundation — named for the young woman the Leopoulos family lost in an auto accident in 2001 — Paul, his wife Linda and the staff have worked to impress upon educators the positive impact of the arts on learning. The foundation has raised funds for scholarships, provided art supplies to underfunded schools and assisted teachers with professional development, materials and supplies.
“We honor Thea, and this foundation was started about her,” Leopoulos says. “But now it’s much bigger than all of us. It’s this entity that is giving teachers across the state, school districts across the state, students all over the state, every corner, the opportunity to find their story and be able to live their best life.
“My gosh, there’s nothing more than that that I could ever hope for.”
Research, analysis and outcomes have shown studying the arts can enhance a student’s learning across other scholastic disciplines. In a meta-analysis of 62 studies, for example, the Arts Education Partnership found studying music improved achievement and proficiency in math and increased reading proficiency, cognitive development and SAT scores. Visual arts positively impacted organized writing ability and the ability to interpret complex texts used in other subjects, like science.
Students taking a combination of arts programs showed improved verbal, reading and math skills and an improved capacity for analyzing, problem solving and other higher-order skills.
Leopoulos and his wife watched Thea, once a middling student, blossom after she immersed herself in arts courses. Having seen firsthand the value and influence of the arts on educational performance, Leopoulos pulled the only positive thing he could from the tragedy — his memories of Thea — and turned her name into a beacon of positivity and a force for creativity and knowledge.
“My biggest fear, beyond our two boys and my wife, when we lost Thea, was that people would forget her,” Leopoulos says. “And maybe that’s unrealistic and crazy, but it’s sort of how I felt. So if you take that fear and then you also take what Thea has accomplished now, and the fact that what the foundation does is related directly to what we learned from her and her experiences in high school, [then you see] that all of these young people are being helped.”
Since 2002, the Thea Foundation has awarded more than $2.3 million in scholarships. In the 2021-2022 school year alone, Thea awarded 36 scholarships totaling $219,000; its teacher training program Arts Reconstruction reached a record 11 teachers and the school supplies program Arts Closet distributed $215,000 in materials to more than 200 projects around Arkansas.
All that money has come at a cost, says Thea Foundation Executive Director Nick Leopoulos, Paul’s youngest son. He has observed that by doing the foundation’s daily work, telling Thea’s story over and over again, his parents have confronted and re-lived her loss regularly when others might have sought privacy.
“It is no longer yours to hold sacred,” Nick says. “There was a sacrifice there in not keeping that loss private and, whatever you have, he shared that with the world. … Seeing that courage and seeing how he used it to the benefit of the organization, I still don’t have a clue how he did it.”
But Paul is putting down the daily burden. At 75, he stepped back from the foundation in February and now anticipates retirement, looking forward to spending more time with Linda and traveling.
“We need to be a couple. We just had our 50th wedding anniversary last December,” Paul says. “We just think that with the foundation in such good hands, we can totally forget about it. It’s going to be fine.”
To celebrate the move, Paul is being honored by the foundation at Into the Blue on Sept. 17. It is Thea’s primary fundraiser, returning for the first time since 2019, where he is to be the surprise recipient of the foundation’s Pillar of the Arts Award.
“Each year he worked diligently to find ways to increase programming opportunities for students and teachers,” says Thea Foundation Communications Director Ginny Porter. “But possibly one of the most valuable things Paul accomplished was building lasting support for the foundation and creating lasting relationships with donors, friends, students, educators and partners. It is impossible to listen to Paul talk about the work Thea Foundation has accomplished and not want to be a part of its success.”
The Pillar of the Arts Award, Nick says, goes to someone with an absolute commitment to the arts and who is aware of their necessity from a community, educational and personal standpoint. Past recipients have made inroads into supporting the arts and brought about true change through their efforts.
His father clearly embodies the award’s spirit, but Nick wanted it to be the surprise, final jewel in the crown of a two-decade effort to improve lives through art.
“We definitely wanted to wait until he was no longer working for the organization before I pulled the trigger on this,” Nick says.
Paul Leopoulos recalls that before Thea entered her junior year at North Little Rock High School, she was more interested in soccer and the social aspects of school, which was reflected in report cards that showed a lot of C’s and D’s.
It was something of a surprise when the family got a look at Thea’s junior schedule following her sophomore year. She had signed up for art, drama, competitive speech and dance.
“I just feel like I want to do something different,” Thea said to her skeptical parents.
“So she did,” Paul says.
Her first visual arts project was an acrylic finger painting of B.B. King, which amazed those who saw it.
“When she took it to school the next day her teacher went absolutely berserk,” Paul says. “Thea didn’t have any art in her background. To accomplish something of that quality — it was an impressionistic painting.”
People began to take an interest in Thea’s artistic efforts, and the positive acknowledgement extended to her speech, dance and drama pursuits.
“It just changed how she looked at school,” Paul says.
He is fond of saying that there is plenty of research showing the relationship between arts studies and educational success. But Paul also saw the success story play out firsthand.
Thea’s grades practically spiked. She earned “wonderful” marks in math, Paul says, and ended up with close to a 4.0 GPA. Thea also showed improved confidence, interest in extracurricular activities and school organizations and an overall upbeat attitude.
“After we lost her, we found out those things had accelerated her growth and maturity in school,” Paul says.
Talented and effervescent, clearly setting out on an uplifting new path, Thea was killed on May 28, 2001, when the car she was in was struck by another vehicle. She and her best friend had been on a trip to buy the friend a birthday present.
Shortly thereafter, her parents learned Thea had gotten an A in trigonometry.
“That’s the whole story really,” Paul says. “Thea wasn’t, and I hate to say the term because I don’t believe any kid is ‘average.’ Every young person is born with an amazing brain. And for them to reach their potential takes a whole lot of things to happen.”
Within the year, Paul and Linda had begun the Thea Foundation.
He can’t put his finger on exactly why, but Nick Leopoulos initially didn’t want any part of his parents’ efforts in starting the foundation.
Certainly he was processing his own grief and, also blessed with an artistic temperament, he was interested in his own pursuits and creations. He didn’t reject the foundation or its purpose, but as a sibling he was also experiencing Thea’s loss differently from his parents.
“I understood there was a need for them to engage in this kind of creation,” Nick says. “I just didn’t want to concern myself with the details at that moment.”
He earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design and, after returning to Arkansas, worked for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and pursued freelance projects with different arts organizations.
But Nick was also a “fly on the wall” for foundation-related conversations his parents were having. Admittedly the analytical type, he began to realize the level of administration and organization required to run the operation — not to mention his dad’s ability to communicate directly with school administrators, donors and decision-makers.
Nick returned to Savannah to get his master’s in arts administration with the notion he could eventually be of help.
“I’m trying to catch up to that level of communication he has in spades,” Nick says. “I saw it every day and I was hooked. I decided to go back and get a degree that was more focused around the business side.”
Nick was the Thea Foundation’s assistant director from 2011-2019 and had six months as executive director before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the postponement of Into the Blue.
Being able to bring back the live event, to gather former scholarship winners together to perform and share their stories, and to honor his dad, should make for a special night. After all, Nick says, the arts are best enjoyed live.
“It is an opportunity for us to share with the donors and the general public of Arkansas what incredible work comes from the student body of the state,” Nick says.
Beyond throwing a successful fundraiser, Nick, who estimates foundation programs are engaging with around 8% of the state’s population, wants to continue to expand the scope and reach as many schools and students as possible.
“We want to go all the way with this,” he says.
Paul is sure Nick can.
“Nick has trained for this,” he says. “I tell people he is way smarter than me.”
Laying down his work and leaving it in capable hands, Paul is looking forward to his first post-retirement adventure with Linda, a trip to the Grand Canyon.
Beyond travel, Paul is also thinking of taking up painting again.
He took a class shortly after Thea died and found he had some ability, so, looking back, maybe people shouldn’t have been so surprised when Thea’s talent surfaced.
Thea will always be with Paul. Maybe there was always a little of Paul in Thea.
“Everybody said she got that from somebody,” Paul says of his daughter’s talent. “I took an art class. I did some nice art and I loved it. So I may, when I get a little quieter in my life here, I might actually go take some art, painting classes. Because I would really love to do more of that.”