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Making children ‘Happy’

Pharrell Williams’ nonprofit shows that learning can be fun

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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Pharrell Williams’ mother, Carolyn, at a From One Hand to
Another’s after-school program. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Rhonda Ambrose, the principal of Campostella Elementary School in Norfolk, understands the challenges the 700 children in her care face each day. Two housing developments lie within the school’s district. “Almost 100 percent of our students are in the free lunch program,” she says.

Typically her pupils have limited opportunities for activities outside of the classroom. But last summer 50 fourth- and fifth-graders were chosen to attend one of the Summer of Innovation camps offered by From One Hand to Another (FOHTA), a Virginia Beach-based foundation.

The six-week camps provide project-based, hands-on learning opportunities. In one program, children learned how to take fingerprints and cast footprints with the help of the Virginia Beach police chief, while in another program they worked with teachers on journal writing and researching careers.   “We have a big need here,” Ambrose says. “Many of our students are one to two grade levels behind.”

FOHTA was founded in 2008 by Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams, the Grammy Award-winning musician, record producer and entrepreneur whose song “Happy” became an international sensation. FOHTA is grounded in his desire to change the world one child at a time. “He wants them to have the experience that learning can be fun and to also empower them through new technologies, art and media,” says Louisa Strayhorn, FOHTA’s executive director.

Expanding program 
The organization began offering summer camps and after-school programs in 2012. The number of camps has grown from one to 13 this year in locations in South Hampton Roads and Titusville, Fla. FOHTA also runs after-school programs in Virginia Beach at Parkway and Bettie F. Williams elementary schools.

“In the last three years we have educated over 2,000 children in our after-school and summer camp programs,” Strayhorn says. In that same three-year span the foundation has trained approximately 150 volunteers and more than 150 teachers in the FOHTA’s teaching methods.

Schools in Virginia Beach and Norfolk are fully involved in the program, but that’s just the beginning for the organization’s aspirations. “The goal was never to only do a program in Virginia Beach,” Strayhorn says. “We have already started the expansion in Hampton Roads, and this year we will have a camp in Titusville, Fla. We are also looking at 10 or 12 other places around the country to have this program.”
This year FOHTA will serve over 1,050 children. It takes $500 to send each child to summer camp. The cost is covered by FOHTA, which relies on individual and corporate contributions, sponsors and in-kind services.

Mother’s influence
The foundation’s mission is a very personal one for Williams, who grew up in Virginia Beach’s Seatack neighborhood. “He has always had an interest in making sure that children had the same blessings he had in terms of support from teachers and the community,” Strayhorn says. “He felt that support from his family, teachers and the community was one of the reasons that he began a successful career.”

Williams’ mother, Carolyn, serves as the foundation’s board chair and director of education. She wanted to be a part of the organization not only because of her passion for education — she is a former educator and administrator — but also to help her son get his vision off the ground. “He’s always been a busy bee,” she says. “He gave the vision, but I felt like I needed to pull the details and intricate parts together. We utilized the skills of Stacey Lopez, our chief operating officer, to assist with logistics and implementation of our various components.”

Williams acknowledges his mother’s influence in creating the foundation. “The joy that my mom got in teaching children, and the spiritual reward that she got was probably inspiring on a more subconscious level,” says the musician, who currently serves as a coach on NBC’s “The Voice.”

“I didn’t know I wanted to share anything or teach … but the way my mom was about teaching and education and the way she was around people, it felt like the natural thing for me to do. Once you get older and you realize the things that really matter to you, then the things that have always mattered are things that will resonate with you, and the strongest will come to the top.”

For Williams, From One Hand to Another “is a way to express that gratitude” to his family, his teachers and his hometown community, he says. Their encouragement and guidance have given him the freedom to remain open to new ideas and concepts, and that’s a philosophy he hopes the students in FOHTA will embrace. “If you are not open, then nothing else new can make it in,” he says.

Playing music on iPads
His efforts to help his hometown began in 2004 when he donated back-to-school supplies to children and distributed Thanksgiving turkeys to residents in his old neighborhood.
After he founded FOHTA in 2008, it launched its first Summer of Innovation event in affiliation with NASA at Williams Farm Park in Virginia Beach. About 900 children gathered there to talk about technology and hopefully discover that learning can be fun.

Bishop Ezekiel Williams of Faith World Ministries in Norfolk participated in one demonstration, playing a “piano” using an app on an iPad. “We formed a band,” he says. “We were patched into the sound system, and it was amazing. After that, the young people could come up on the platform to use the iPads.”

FOHTA has grown rapidly since Strayhorn joined it in 2012. One of its most important advancements was the development of its STEAMM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics and Motivation). In addition to learning about science, technology, engineering and art, students also look at social issues and how they relate to their lives.

One of the foundation’s major supporters is New York-based MacAndrews & Forbes Inc., an investment firm owned by billionaire Ronald Perelman. He owns 15 companies, which range from Revlon to SG (Scientific Games), a firm involved in the lottery and regulated gaming industries.

Christine Taylor, executive vice president of corporate communications and external affairs at MacAndrews & Forbes, has visited FOHTA’s summer camps. “I came back so touched and inspired by these kids,” she says. “I was speaking to one of the kids and asked, ‘If you didn’t have this program, what would you be doing?’ He said, ‘I would be sitting in front of a television.’ ”

Chats with former astronaut
The foundation’s partners include NASA, Hampton University, the FBI, Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation, the Virginia Beach and Norfolk Public school systems and EverFi, a critical skills education technology company based in Washington. D.C.

Hampton University’s College of Virginia Beach in Virginia Beach Town Center provides space for one of the summer camps. College administrators also serve as mentors. “We consider it an ideal partnership,” says John Waddell, director of the college. “Our president, William Harvey, believes in providing opportunities for young people to grow. These types of programs are important to him and the administration.”

NASA has presented workshops such as “Rockets to Racecars.” It explores the concept of drag (the force of the atmosphere opposing the forward motion of any object). Drag results in that object slowing down, unless additional thrust is added to overcome it.  Drag is “bad for racecars, but good for spaceships during descent and landing,” says Janet Sellars, director of the office of education for NASA Langley Research Center. “It helps the children understand science and the concept of drag in an everyday way.”

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, a Virginia native who played football at the University of Richmond, has been very involved with FOHTA programs. Sellars recalls Melvin talking with students as he handed out backpacks with school supplies. “The kids were impressed with Pharrell but more impressed with having Leland, a black astronaut, sitting with them, talking about science and technology,” she says.

From One Hand to Another recently began a partnership with the United Negro College Fund, providing a $50,000 scholarship to a college student. The scholarship presentation aired on BET during UNCF/BET’s “An Evening of Stars” on April 26. Sara Jones, a Howard University senior majoring in computer science, was this year’s recipient.

Also during April, the foundation received the Marian Palmer Capps Award from the Urban League of Hampton Roads Inc. for its community involvement, educational initiatives and support of interracial understanding and cooperation. “We give kids training at our camps and after-school programs in conflict management so they learn how to react to each other and to deal with conflict,” Strayhorn says.

Even with a busy schedule, Williams continues to have a guiding hand in the organization. He is involved in areas ranging from curriculum to program goals.

If he cannot attend a camp, he often sends the children videotaped messages. “He supplies the top vision for us,” Strayhorn says. “He makes decision about how many places we need to be in the country. He makes time. FOHTA is part of the whole group of businesses [which include the clothing lines Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream], he runs. We are grateful for that, and that we are not considered a stepchild.”

This year 150 students from Campostella Elementary in Norfolk will attend one of FOHTA’s camps, 100 more children than last year. “That means a lot to us,” Ambrose says of the additional 100 slots for her pupils. “It’s vital for us to have programs like FOHTA.”

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