This year, April showered in more than much needed raindrops – April was marked by an outpouring of generosity all month long. Charity events took Beverly Hills by storm, benefiting educational, mentorship, and family services across Los Angeles.
For me, personally, the month of giving began on stage, by donating a portion of my concert ticket proceeds to some extraordinary charities. I had the opportunity to open for “Mr. Las Vegas,” Wayne Newton in his new show, Wayne Newton: Up Close and Personal, at the Saban Theatre on Saturday, April 8th, and the night was a huge success! Not only was it a chance to open for such an extraordinary talent whose timelessness I so admire, but it was a chance for me to give back to two important organizations – Children Mending Hearts and LA’s Best. Children Mending Hearts is an extracurricular arts program that aims to reduce violence by encouraging at-risk youth to empower and help other less fortunate children through arts programming. Their annual Empathy Rocks fundraiser will taking place on June 11th, and it’s always a fun day celebrating the power of empathy through art. LA’s Best is an after school enrichment program, designed to keep inner city youth off the streets and out of gang involvement by offering a safe, supervised environment for children to learn and play after school hours. Working in conjunction with LA Unified School District, this organization focuses on the importance of educational reach outside of the classroom. There is nothing I enjoy more than being able to make a difference through my music… So the month was off to a tremendous start!
Next, I was fortunate to attend the annual Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs Impact Awards, hosted by actor/rapper/entrepreneur Nick Cannon. On Thursday, April 20th, ISA donors, patrons of Los Angeles area private schools, entertainment business moguls, and athletes congregated at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel to raise funds for the Alliance, founded in 1985 by a group of Southern California school heads to increase diversity across 54 private schools across the region. Over the past 14 years, Alliance students have received nearly $70 million in financial aid from member schools. The organization awards gifted, underprivileged students with the chance to study in some of the best independent elementary and secondary schools, preparing them for higher education and careers that might have otherwise been unattainable. I was fortunate enough to attend a private school in my hometown of Philadelphia, Germantown Academy, so I recognize firsthand how critical a strong educational foundation is, and how crucial diversity is in the realm of private education.
After a lovely cocktail hour with music provided by the Brentwood School jazz band, the program began when three outstanding Alliance students, Cole Thomas, Joaquin Huerta, and Sandra Olmedo, received scholarships for high academic achievements. They each gave moving speeches about how the ISA changed the nature of their educational path and impacted their lives far beyond the classroom. By recognizing their aptitude and giving them a chance to study in Los Angeles’ most elite college preparatory schools, the Alliance team, lead by President and Head of Schools at Crossroads Bob Riddle, made it possible for these students to excel beyond the confines of their underprivileged and sometimes abusive upbringings, and to become the first members of their families to attend college.
Next, Alliance parent Cynthia Shackelford spoke about her deep gratitude for Brentwood Lower School admissions director Mary Beth Barry, the first Impact Award recipient of the evening. A lifelong educator, founding faculty member of Brentwood School, and ISA board chair, Barry possesses foresight and compassion to identify gifted Alliance students, accept them to the Brentwood School community with open arms, guide their educational pursuits, foster meaningful relationships with them and their families, and prepare them for higher education. She truly offers Alliance students the educational foundation for a bright future.
As a founding partner of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, Nina L. Shaw, Esq. is a powerhouse – a wicked smart, spunky, visionary who represents such artists as John Legend and Jamie Foxx, among countless other notable writers, producers, directors, actors and executives. She was named “Entertainment Attorney of the Year” by the Beverly Hills Bar Association, listed on Essence Magazine‘s 2016 “Black Women in Hollywood Power” list, and featured in The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Women in Entertainment Power 100 List” for her limitless dedication to her clients. Outside of the business realm, Shaw’s passion for and commitment to children’s education is evident, too. Client and longtime friend Lawrence Fishburne presented the second Impact Award to Shaw, who currently serves as the Vice President of the ISA Board of Directors. Shaw’s compelling acceptance speech hallmarked the evening, for me… She shared a story, told to her by her grandfather, about a slave boy dedicated to learning how to read, word by word, page by page. He had one book to his name, donated to him by a compassionate friend. The book was a Bible, and that man grew up to become a well respected reverend with a congregation of his own, in the town that Shaw’s grandfather was raised. This touching story resonated with everyone in the room that evening.
Former UCLA Bruins and Green Bay Packers football star Jonathan Franklin rounded out the evening, awarding the third Impact Award to Los Angeles Rams‘ Director of Football and COO Kevin Demoff. As one of the NFL’s “10 Future Power Brokers” according to Sports Illustrated, Demoff’s heartfelt speech accounted for the many ways in which his and the Rams’ philanthropic efforts have benefited the Alliance, as well as United Way of Greater Los Angeles, LA Sports Council, Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission, and American Cancer Society.
The night also included a live auction, where generous donations earned a coveted walk-on role in the ABC hit series Black-ish, tickets and field passes to a Rams home game along with a signed Jared Goff jersey, and the opportunity to throw the first pitch at a 2017 Dodgers game. It was the perfect way to cap off a truly inspiring evening!
I ran into Nina Shaw again just a few days later, as she co-chaired the Big Brothers Big Sisters Annual Accessories for Success Spring Scholarship Luncheon on Sunday, April 23rd, also at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel. This April afternoon involved two of my favorite things – fashion and philanthropy – in a beautiful day to behold! Actress and fashionista Amber Valetta hosted the event with the help of comedian Mindy Kaling, and BBBSLA Board Chair Laura Lizer, Rebecca Campbell, Nancy Taylor, Kate Nichols, Sandra Stern, Nicole Lorey, and Loyola Marymount University co-chaired. I had a few personal connections to this event, so the day was meaningful to me in a variety of significant ways.
First, the fundraiser was presented by City National Bank and TLC – I have had many, many songs featured on female-focused programs on TLC, including Brides Gone Styled, Curvy Brides, Toddlers & Tiaras, Love Lust, Big Sexy, and my favorite, Say Yes to the Dress. It was only fitting for me to be there to watch TLC President & General Manager Nancy Daniels receive her Excellence in Mentoring Award. As hosts of new TLC program Nate and Jeremiah by Design, Nate Berkus and husband Jeremiah Brent presented Daniels with her award, praising her courage to portray unique families and communities on television. In a video tribute, stars from many TLC shows paid tribute to Daniels’ commitment to cutting edge storytelling, like Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro, Little People Big World stars Matt and Amy Roloff, and Say Yes to the Dress host Randy Fenoli. It is clear that Daniels’ aim is for TLC to be a window into alternative lifestyles, an outlet for differing viewpoints, and a conduit towards broader acceptance. Since she assumed the roles of President and GM, TLC has become one of the top 10 ad-supported cable networks with over 30 shows and millions of viewers each year. But in addition to running this successful network, Daniels gives back as a BBBSLA big sister in The Hollywood Reporter‘s Women in Entertainment Mentoring Program.
Emmy Award-winning journalist Stephen Galloway, Executive Features Editor for The Hollywood Reporter, conceived this mentorship program in 2009, with a goal of matching 15 to 20 underserved high school junior women each year with a big sister who is a top level executive in the television or film industry. NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke is a longtime big sister in this program, as are Paramount Pictures Marketing & Distribution President Megan Colligan, and Fox Network Groups General Council Rita Tuzon. Former mentees Paolo Franco, Megan Castillo, Vandalena Mahoney, and Ravynne Staine, presented Galloway with the Innovator Award for guiding dozens of promising young students through the program and for personally taking them under wing through the college application process and beyond. Galloway even secured funding for one of the program mentees to attend Loyola Marymount University, where he currently serves as the Cosgrove Visiting Artist. As a journalist, Galloway earned the distinction of “Journalist of the Year” at the National Entertainment Journalism Awards for his notable work, his acclaimed Reporter Roundtable Series, and his interview series The Hollywood Masters.
But it is Galloway’s big heart that shined on that Sunday afternoon, when Galloway revealed in his deeply personal acceptance speech, how he is the son of a Holocaust survivor who survived the horrors of her concentration camp due to the kindness and compassion of one brave young man. His mother was a mere eleven year old child, orphaned and alone, escaping the brutalities of the Nazis, when a kind soul, no more than a teenager himself, found her on the city street. One night, he valiantly stowed her away in a secret, underground barn storage unit he hid beneath mounds of hay – where he had been sheltering ten other Jewish people in hiding. Because this one courageous man helped a desperate child in need, Galloway’s mother survived and ultimately married this remarkable man. That single act of kindness saved a life, and became the impetus for Galloway to do the same for so many young women. His work with BBBSLA is “the most important mission of [his] life,” Galloway stated. Over 120 girls have completed the program and gone on to college, financed by over $4 million in scholarship funding raised through the mentorship program alone.
Galloway shared his accolades with another extraordinary woman present that afternoon… The first woman to head a Hollywood movie studio as former President of 20th Century Fox, former CEO of Paramount Pictures, and centerpiece of Galloway’s most recent biography, entitled Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker – the incomparable Sherry Lansing.
This aspect of the day brings me to my second personal connection with the event… As a longtime supporter of BBBSLA and big sister herself, Lansing co-founded the Big Sisters of Los Angeles Future Fund in 1993. But in addition to serving countless underprivileged women as a big sister in the entertainment business, Lansing is also a big sister – to me. Sorority sister, that is! She is a member of Sigma Delta Tau sorority from Northwestern University. I, too, am a third-generation member of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT), from the University of Pennsylvania. When Lansing and Galloway conducted a book signing to culminate the afternoon, she and I shared a nice “sisterly” moment recalling our sorority days. She even signed my book, “So nice to meet a fellow SDT sister!,” making the afternoon all the more special.
A fun fashion show followed the award ceremony, featuring looks that “Bigs” and “Littles” put together during a Salvation Army shopping spree outing. It was wonderful to see how each duo was paired based on aspirations and shared interests. And the day ended how it commenced – with shopping! Dozens of jewelry, apparel, and accessories vendors from the LA area set up mini boutiques, where women could shop for unique items while donating proceeds to the amazing BBBSLA cause. I must give a “shout out” to Moonlite, the chic boutique where I purchased a fabulous gold vegan leather motorcycle jacket by Extenzo Paris. It felt great to support BBBSLA by investing in this great piece!
Finally, to culminate the month of April giving, I attended the inspiring Extraordinary Families 2nd Annual Awards Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 26th. Although only in its second year, the gala attracted 400 film and television stars and executives to celebrate the importance of family. Formed in 2015 as a fusion of Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency (SCFFAA) and Child Welfare Initiative (CWI), Extraordinary Families is dedicated to improving the daily lives and long-term futures of children and families within the child welfare system. Inside Edition host Victoria Recano led the program with elegance and grace, first introducing Gala Chair Brooke Kaufman Halsband, and then bringing former foster care adoptee – turned marine – Marine Sergeant Carlos Boone to the stage. He set the program off to a touching start, recalling his experience being adopted at 16 years of age by Extraordinary Families CEO Sarah Boone. Boone articulated, “I will not waiver in my conviction that there is nothing more important to our future… than our children or our families.” It was quite moving to witness firsthand Boone’s love for her adopted son.
Another touching moment was the spoken word performance by three former foster teens, Alexiss Valle, Edana Jones and Steven Barbee. They were grateful to EF and UP4Youth for removing them from their abusive, dangerous homes, and offering them a loving and safe foster experience, educational counseling, and career guidance. They concluded the piece in unison – “We are strong. We are determined. We are resilient. Extraordinary Families is helping us build our futures.”
The meaning of their words echoed in the award speeches that followed a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” by India Carney…
Foster mother Amy Elaine Wakeland presented the Sylvia Fogelman Founder’s Award to Kim Kopp and Lisa McFann. Foster parents with EF since 2013, the couple has fostered four children and adopted two into their “forever” home. They gave a moving speech about how the process of working with EF to bring foster and adoptive children into their lives affected them, as parents, just as much as it affected the children. EF gave them all a family, and for that, the women are eternally grateful.
It was lovely seeing Jennifer Salke for a second time in just a few days; she presented the Luminary Award to the executive producers of the most beloved new hit series on her NBC roster, This is Us. Fellow Penn alum and show creator/executive producer Dan Fogelman was unable to attend the gala due to an out of state filming commitment, but co-executive producer Jess Rosenthal was on site to accept the award on behalf of the series. He projected a poignant clip from the program, featuring a scene when father Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) explains to his adopted son, Randall (Lonnie Chavis), that his difference as an outstandingly intelligent, unique, adopted child is a special difference that should be celebrated – and that he is loved just the same as if he had been a biological child. As seasons progress, adoption will continue to remain a social issue at the forefront of the series.
Chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, Gary Newman took the stage next, to present the Visionary Award to award-winning writer, director and producer Lee Daniels. Most widely known for epic hits Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, and Fox’s Empire and STAR, Daniels continues to expose the harsh realities of the foster system and child welfare through compelling storytelling. Also a Philadelphia native, like myself, Daniels has a mission to give a voice to the voiceless – a commitment stemming from his roots as a foster youth himself.
The Champion Award, the third award of the evening, was a post-humus award presented to the family of legendary music manager Howard Kaufman, who passed away in February. Longtime friend and business associate Craig Fruin gave a moving speech about Kaufman, citing that “his legacy will endure” by way of the Howard Kaufman Visitation Center, a safe haven for foster care children who are in the process of healing from traumatic histories of violence and abuse. With their daughters by her side, Kaufman’s wife, Caroline, gave an inspiring speech about her late husband’s devotion, philanthropy, and kindness, and a video followed, featuring a broad array of close friends and clients paying tribute to their loyal friend and advisor. Kaufman guided the careers Chicago, Steely Dan, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson, Boston, Aerosmith, the Eagles, and Jimmy Buffett, among countless others… The respect and admiration he has garnered across the music business is staggering and profound, matched only by his clear commitment to his family and philanthropic causes.
And so concludes my recap of the generous month of April… May the showering of generosity continue to pour this spring and summer!