For Young Storytellers and many arts nonprofits, the show must go online

May 15, 2020

U.S. Bank has provided $6 million in grants to help arts, culture and recreation nonprofits adapt amid COVID-19.

On Thursday, “The Office” alumni Paul Lieberstein, Oscar Nuñez and Craig Robinson returned to primetime for the world premiere of a stage play about dentists who compete in a series of comical challenges in a quest to secure a promotion from their boss.

As the hilarity unfolded on Zoom and YouTube, “The Dentist Competition” playwright Quentin Chatman watched at home with his dad. The performance was a trip down memory lane for the 14-year-old, who wrote the play as a fifth-grader in 2015. 

“It was thrilling to see my story come to life,” said Quentin, adding that a rush of nostalgia immediately took him back to his elementary school days. 

Of his writing inspiration back then, he reflected with a laugh, “Well, I loved candy and hated going to the dentist.”

Fittingly, the play about dentists left everyone smiling – and Robinson closed it out by giving Quentin a simple message:

“Keep writing.”

The performance was part of programming put on by Los Angeles nonprofit Young Storytellers, which uses storytelling to help elementary, middle and high school students explore their creativity, set goals and build confidence. It has impacted more than 15,000 students since its founding in 1997.

Its programming typically takes place in classrooms but that, of course, has not been possible as schools have closed for the year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many organizations, Young Storytellers has quickly shifted to online. Through its new The Story Clubhouse program mentioned above, for example, the nonprofit has been tapping famous actors and actresses to volunteer to perform plays written by its students. 

“What’s been cool about The Story Clubhouse is that it’s been a platform for joy and play – it makes our hearts feel a little lighter,” said Bill Thompson, executive director of Young Storytellers. “It’s been an opportunity for students to feel celebrated and volunteers to feel connected.”

To help Young Storytellers adapt, U.S. Bank has donated a $10,000 grant and helped the organization secure a $130,000 loan through the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The grant is helping it create infrastructure to digitize services and the loan has provided a lifeline to keep its 9 full-time and 2 part-time employees.

“Without our staff, we wouldn’t be able to continue providing our programming,” said Thompson, adding that the staff has been crazy busy training around 2,500 volunteers on the new digital storytelling formats. “So without the PPP funding, very quickly it could have become a downward spiral.”

U.S. Bank Corporate & Commercial Banking Relationship Manager and Young Storytellers Board Member John Hall added, “It’s inspiring to see Young Storytellers bring out such creative and unique ideas from students. The cherry on top has always been to watch as their stories are acted out and brought to life on stage. I’m grateful that we’re able to help play a part in making sure this continues to happen – virtually.”

The Young Storytellers grant is among $6 million in recent funding from the U.S. Bank Foundation dedicated to arts, culture and recreation nonprofits. It’s part of the company’s giving platform Community Possible focused on supporting organizations in the areas of Work, Home and, in this case, Play. 

In the past, U.S. Bank grants have been earmarked for specific programs tied to those areas. Amid COVID-19, however, the company has allowed for nonprofits to use them for general operating expenses. 

The shift is a recognition that nonprofits are facing challenges right now and not all are able to even partially move their services online. The $6 million in funding supports a wide range of programming nationwide, from virtual museum tours to online youth concerts to after-school programs-turned-child care for essential workers.

For Bill Thompson and Young Storytellers, this type of support from community partners was important yesterday, is today and will be tomorrow.

“To get through this,” he said, “we know that we will need to rely on our community more than ever.”

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