Category Archives: Perspectives

Camera Ready

It’s not often we get the chance to help a start up, but that’s exactly what we are doing for Film Columbia, the newest initiative of One Columbia For Arts and History.Unknown

As the city’s “unofficial” office of cultural affairs, One Columbia’s mission is to strengthen and unify the arts community with an ultimate goal of attracting more visitors to events and activities. They do this through a number of high profile projects like public art and the Cultural Passport. But, they haven’t stopped here.

The idea behind Film Columbia is to create a video library of art events and activities that groups can use to promote their own endeavors. It works like this: One Columbia hires emerging and established local filmmakers to shoot video of cultural events that take place in the city (most artists cannot afford to do this on their own). The filmmakers edit the footage into shorts videos that can be used to market various events, festivals, gallery openings, performances and lots of other happenings. Attendance goes up, artists are happy and Columbia is better known for its robust arts scene!

With several videos completed, it’s time to take the initiative to the next level. That’s where CreateAthon can help. One Columbia already has a good foundation from which to build—a strong visual identity, a great website and an even better digital newsletter. The challenge is carving out space for Film Columbia within the One Columbia brand and increasing awareness among local artists of the free service. CreateAthon deliverables will include positioning, marketing planning and collateral. With the right tools in place, Film Columbia will be ready for its big premiere!

Helping Y Guides Grow

We’ve seen our fair share of great youth programs over the past 17 years of CreateAthon. This year, we’re pleased to have discovered yet another program that offers a positive experience for kids: Y Guides. Founded in 1926 by Harold Keitner, Director of the YMCA in St. Louis, Y Guides is dedicated to forging bonds between fathers and their children through dedicated time together and specific activities designed especially for them.

Nation Chief Chris Miller and his favorite Y Guides at a Longhouse camping event: daughters Eva (left) and Helen (right).

Nation Chief Chris Miller and his favorite Y Guides at a Longhouse camping event: daughters Eva (left) and Helen (right).

Inspired by Native American culture, dads and their kids form tribes and get together on a monthly basis to enjoy activities ranging from arts, crafts and outdoor exploration to discovering local, family-friendly attractions. These individual tribes combine to form a larger federation and gather from time to time for signature events such as campouts and other excursions.

Chris Miller, as Nation Chief, leads the dads in the local Three Rivers Federation. He has been involved in Y Guides for several years with his two daughters, Eva (9) and Helen (7). “I did Y Guides with my dad as a kid, and it was something really special between the two of us. It’s time that’s set aside just for dads and their kids — no relying on moms, no dropping off with other leaders. Dads are 100% responsible for the programs and for time spent with their children. I’m thankful for this time that I have with my girls, and my greatest hope is that we can make the kind of memories together that I did with my dad. I can’t imagine a greater gift than that.”

As well-established as the Y Guide program is, Chris tells us that participation in the Midlands is at an all-time low. “That’s why we applied to CreateAthon,” he said. “We know the program is growing in other similar markets, but for some reason it has dwindled here. There’s also research that shows the positive impact Y Guides has on young boys and girls as they grow. So we need to turn this enrollment trend around, and we know the CreateAthon team can help us do that.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Y Guides, help out now by spreading the word about this wonderful program for dads and their children. In the meantime, be on the lookout for more news about Y Guides and the work we’ll be doing for them during CreateAthon next Thursday, October 23. While you’re at it, check out all the national CreateAthon action that’ll be taking place next week as part of international Pro Bono Week. As an official Pro Bono Week partner, CreateAthon is bringing together 14 groups across the country that are hosting CreateAthon events next week. We couldn’t be more pleased!

The Arts Empowerment Project: Anticipating the Power of Pro Bono

I feel so energetic just being here.

I’m bowled over by their passion and thoughtfulness.

It’s already more than I ever imagined.

This was the take from Natalie Allen, founder of the Arts Empowerment Project in Charlotte, NC, in a post-briefing-meeting interview with our friends from GreyHawk Films. These generous folks were on hand to capture initial footage for a short film that will chronicle the CreateAthon experience from a nonprofit organization’s point of view. Not surprisingly, we chose to capture the briefing meeting as the nonprofit organization’s first official encounter with the CreateAthon model. We were also interested in getting Natalie’s immediate response coming out of that meeting.

“I’d heard about CreateAthon, and knew the program could be effective in helping us shape our brand strategy,” said Natalie. “But I was not expecting the depth of insightful questioning, from the need we meet in the market, to how we deliver our services and how we’re funded. I can already see that this process will facilitate a great deal more for us than developing marketing messages.”

Oh. Yeah.

We’re totally in awe of the Arts Empowerment Project, which is dedicated to helping at-risk children see new opportunities for their lives as a result of being exposed to the arts. Our CreateAthon team plans to address brand strategy, development strategy, and specific marketing and communications tactics to help the organization build scale behind its efforts.

Natalie tells us she fully recognizes the need for nonprofits to have clarity around their brand. “With information at our fingertips all the time, you really have to capture someone’s attention immediately,” she said. “I’m thrilled to have this team of professionals helping us translate what we’re all about, in a way that inspires people to respond to our cause.”

 

Natalie Allen presents the Arts Empowerment Project's mission during a fundraising event.

Natalie Allen presents the Arts Empowerment Project’s mission during a fundraising event.

 

She adds that the CreateAthon experience is well timed for her organization. “Like so many young nonprofits, we were faced with the challenge of putting all of our upfront resources into program development versus investing in brand strategy and communications,” said Natalie. “We know that both are equally important, and the gift of these marketing services through CreateAthon will take our program to the next level. We feel honored to be here, and to have been selected by the people at Riggs Partners who started the whole concept of CreateAthon.”

Telling the story of how young people can redefine their lives through the arts? The honor is all ours.

Stay tuned for more on the Arts Empowerment Program and their journey through CreateAthon, as it all unfolds during Pro Bono Week 2014.

The Power of a Smile

“Thank you,” she said to me as she sat on the steps, caressing her sore jaw.

“Me?” I said, turning to be sure she wasn’t talking to someone behind me, someone far more worthy of appreciation. “Oh, I’m just here to work with the media today.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. “Every person here made this possible. I can’t thank you enough.”

This was the unexpected exchange I had with a woman at the South Carolina Dental Association’s Dental Access Days, a two-day free dental clinic that was held last month in Rock Hill, SC and sponsored by our client, Delta Dental.

Dental Access Days brought together 300 dental professionals from all over South Carolina, aided by more than 700 volunteers from the Rock Hill area, to deliver more than $1.2 million in dental services to more than 1,400 adults.

When I arrived at First Baptist Church Rock Hill that morning at 5:00 a.m., there was already a long line of people waiting outside. This line of 250 individuals had been pre-screened the day before and had already obtained a color-coded wristband that designated the type of dental procedure they were to receive.

Working with reporters on this side of the building for more than an hour, it wasn’t until mid-morning that I realized the “bigger” line was on the opposite side of the building. That line contained more than 750 people who had just shown up that morning, hoping to have a long-awaited dental procedure performed.

Many of these folks have been in pain for years. None of them have dental insurance. Many of them are out of work, or between jobs, or retired. Or their job doesn’t pay enough, and they have to decide between putting food on the table or getting a tooth pulled.

Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients.

Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients.

Whether they needed an extraction, a filling or a professional cleaning, it was worth it to them to wait in the dark, and eventually into the heat of the day, and in the rain, in the hopes of receiving care that they currently can’t afford.

It was a powerful scene, and one that became even more so as I moved inside to observe the church sanctuary/multipurpose room that had been converted into a full surgical theater. Rows and rows of dental chairs and equipment waited for the hundreds of patients, many of whom had driven long distances with high hopes that they would be able to get through the line before it was cut off.

The best vantage point was the stage at the front of the room, from which TV reporters and photographers set up their equipment to try and capture the sheer magnitude of the event. Everywhere you looked, you saw dentists, periodontists, oral surgeons, endodontists, dental hygienists, assistants and dental students as they worked patiently but swiftly to treat each patient, and then quickly move to the next one.

The view of Dental Access Days from the stage.

The view of Dental Access Days from the stage.

And here I was, the PR person whose job was to greet and escort members of the media and local dignitaries. I felt an incredible responsibility to tell the story of the dental professionals who so selflessly gave of their time and expertise to help so many strangers, as well as preserving the dignity of patients while capturing and sharing their powerful personal stories.

In addition to the woman who greeted me on the steps, throughout the day I observed patients crying tears of gratitude, hugging “their” dentist as they completed their procedures, and even taking photos with the person who had pulled their teeth!

Most people probably underestimate the value of a smile, but as one of the event organizers pointed out to me, a healthy smile can greatly increase someone’s self esteem, giving them the added confidence they need to go on a job interview or to otherwise get involved in their community.

“It’s not just about the dental work,” he said to me. “It’s about giving people their smile back, and helping them become contributing members of society.”

Including this year, Dental Access Days has provided more than 8,900 adults with $4.5 million in free dental care since the event’s inception in 2009. Delta Dental has a social mission to improve oral health in the communities they serve. Learn more at www.deltadentalsc.com.

The Best Medicine

A story of siblings, cheesy ads, and my hard-won affection for both.

 

The most important exchange I will ever have with my sister was about drugs.

Neither of us were on any at the time (I was twelve years old; she nine). But there have been moments since when I’ve been tempted to claim otherwise. A chemical influence would go a long way in accounting for our bizarre behavior that day. It would also explain why neither of us can remember exactly how the whole mess started.

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The truth is, I honestly don’t know what offense landed Leslie and me in the clink of our respective bedrooms that second Sunday of January, 1994. But I am positive it was our father who put us there.

As in many family bureaucracies, my mother wore the Social Services badge. Whatever bone Leslie and I were scrapping over, Mom would have talked us through negotiations or diverted our attention before hard time had to be handed down. But on this particular afternoon, the social worker was out, and all cases were proceeding directly before the judge. The honorable Jeffrey A. Powelson, presiding. Ours being a decidedly middle-class republic, the judge also served as chief groundskeeper. And so my sister and I found ourselves at the mercy of a man with brush to burn, gutters to clean, and nary a damn to give about the origins of our dispute. There were no questions asked, nor statements given. Only an exasperated, “Go to your rooms.”

That’s probably just as well. Like my father before me, I could now care less what two caterwauling miscreants may or may not have done to be sent to their quarters. But culpability for what would happen once we got there is an entirely different matter—one that still breeds fierce debate.

I blame the Chinese.

WHY THE CAGED BIRD YODELS

To gain any insight into the strange behavior my sister and I were about to exhibit, you must first consider the narrative that had taken root in our collective subconscious over the preceding weeks. In addition to being the year that sibling violence peaked in our home, 1994 also boasted one of the worst cold & flu seasons in recent history, all thanks to a particularly vile strain called A-H3N2, or “The Beijing Flu.” Don’t ask me about the name. Maybe this bug quashed autoimmune revolt with particular zeal. Or maybe it just multiplied more efficiently than other flus. I couldn’t tell you because no one in our house was sick, nor was there any evidence to suggest we’d been exposed to the virus. What we had been exposed to was the barrage of television commercials for products claiming to fight it.

Suppressants, expectorants, decongestants, analgesics: You name it, it was on TV, being used as directed. As the pandemic gained momentum, the frequency of ads grew so intense that they began to blur together and assume a collective voice. By Christmas there were no more thirty-second spots, just two-minute commercial breaks speaking to you in pharmacological tongues like an over-the-counter Hunter Thompson. Cable became a fever dream where every eight minutes the tambourine man returned to paint Kleenex-littered rainbows of transcendent possibility. Relief was a given, you simply had to decide which way you wanted it. Up? Down? Internal? Topical? There were pills to open a person’s northern passages, liquids to clench the southern ones, and potions that promised to keep you just this side of comatose for the duration of your illness. The OTC industry and its media buyers had done their jobs well. Perhaps too well. The ironic side-effect of a single category dominating the airwaves was that nothing stood out. Well, almost nothing.

Alpine horns. Switzerland. Coughdrops.

You just heard it, didn’t you? Deep in the recesses of your brain, some sequence of neurons lit up and coaxed a long-neglected mountaineer to the edge of your frontal lobe where he cupped his mouth and released that spectacular, three-note warble into the hills. And four words were all it took. This is the beauty of lowbrow advertising. It’s like a kid before he understands cool and decides it’s something a person should be. There’s no vanity. No pretense. No apology. Cheesy ads simply do what they’re supposed to. They stick.

“REEE-COLA!”

I don’t remember which of us yelled it first. But I now realize that it couldn’t have happened had the gutters not been my father’s first priority that morning. You see Leslie’s bedroom was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and both offered the most convenient access to our home’s two rooflines. Thus, twice a year our windows were relieved of their screens allowing my father to purge six months of leaf sludge from the overhanging troughs. As domestic duties go, this is an unpleasant one, the home-improvement equivalent of removing a dip of snuff from someone else’s lower lip. Consequently, the man had worked himself into a genuinely special mood even before sentencing us for the initial offense. And that’s probably what made it so irresistible.

“REEE-COLA!” I would scream out over the front yard. The echo would linger for a few beats, then, right on cue, her response would circle around from the back.

“REEE-COLA!”

Oscar Wilde observed that, “Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.” Had he have driven down Cedar Lane that afternoon he could have completed the axiom, adding that “idiocy hangs out its second-story windows and yodels about Swiss throat drops.”

“REEE-COLA!”

You know that thing where you repeat a perfectly normal word so many times that it loses all meaning? Right, well, it turns out there is no inverse phenomenon. After twenty minutes of yodeling, my sister and I still couldn’t tell you what Riccola meant or why it had become the funniest damned thing we’d ever heard. Nor could we anticipate the quantity of hell that would soon be paid for our lack of explanation.

Good questions all, but they paled in comparison to what had become the larger mystery of this fiasco: How had Leslie and I ended up on the same side of anything?

 A HISTORY OF INDIFFERENCE

Some things just don’t make sense. Yes, incarceration breeds unlikely accord. But I’m not sure that explains why my sister and I passed a Swiss epithet, at the top of our lungs, for nearly half-an-hour.

That commercial was nothing new. We’d seen it together literally hundreds of times and never commented, never shared so much as a smirk. Yet here we were, nearly incontinent with laughter, yelling ourselves ironically hoarse and unknowingly compounding the terms of our punishment with each volley. It just happened. Random and organic and intuitive in a way that our relationship had never been. For herein lies the unflattering-yet-undeniable truth about Leslie and I, a truth that should have been confessed from the outset: We were terrible at being brother and sister.

It wasn’t so much a question of love. We had good parents. Neither of us were particularly stupid as children. So we caught on fairly quick to the idea that we were supposed to love each other, and, of course, on a purely fundamental level, we did. But as any decent counselor, or former Eagle drummer, will tell you, ‘sometimes love just ain’t enough.’

The truth is that my sister and I had just never really connected. Some relatives blame this on our age gap. Others suggest the gender difference or point to two polar personalities. But I often wonder if it was nothing more than luck. By that I’m not suggesting that Leslie and I weren’t blessed enough to be close. Quite the opposite, actually. Perhaps we were so lucky as individuals, cementing a strong sibling bond never became necessary.

Don’t ask me how or why, but the cards my sister and I drew in the existential lottery placed us in a genuinely warm, nurturing home that somehow still prepared us for the world outside its doors. In this sense, childhood gave us everything but a common threat. There was no angry drunk of a father to hide from, no philandering mother to resent or chronic illness to rally against. We were untouched by grief. Ungodly fortunate. Simply in each other’s way.

THE RECKONING

And then the judge became the warden.

If you’ve spent any time at all watching prison documentaries, you’re familiar with the “communication on the inside” segment. Invariably, special care is taken to point out the novel ways prisoners share information. Whether it’s lowering notes with twine braided from one’s own pubic hair, or relaying instructions through subversive bursts of slang, no one conspires more resourcefully than the residents of our nation’s correctional facilities. If reality television has anything to teach us, it’s that, in the joint, a seemingly nonsensical hoot or holler can incite disastrous revolt.

“REEE-COLA!”

This is exactly what my father feared and sought to stomp out as he took stairs two at a time en route to our rooms. From my window I’d seen him leave his post near one of the brushfires, but I underestimated his speed. Consequently, half of me was still hanging outside when my door burst open and the smell of kerosene and Levi-Garett proclaimed his arrival.

“What the hell is this Ricola crap?” he demanded, appropriately, of my hindquarters.

I wrangled myself back inside and turned as slowly as possible, hoping my face would straighten itself in time. This was a moot point once I took sight of him. Six feet and forty-one years standing atop the meanest pair of shit-kickers I’ve seen to this day. The down vest he wore overtop a flannel shirt leant extra heft to his shoulders, and its high collar scraped audibly against a beard flecked with sweat and sawdust. Red-faced and seething, he squinted behind a pair of thick, dark-tinted glasses ­­and demanded answers.

“What does it mean!?”

It was like some twisted, backwoods version of Pinocchio, where instead of a puppet conferring the gift of fatherhood, the cover of a Hank Williams Jr. album had come to life for the sole purpose of whooping my ass. As I bit down on the inside of my cheek, reaching for some hidden reserve of composure, Bocephus summoned his other youngin’.

“One of you is going to tell me what in God’s name this is about, and the other’s going to wish they’d spilled it first.”

“Now, damnit!”

What were we supposed to tell him? “You see Dad, there are these Alpinists, real hearty, Scandinavian types who know a thing or two about braving the elements and, well, calling in sick just isn’t an option at twelve-thousand feet…”

Lacking a succinct explanation, Leslie and I should have had the good sense to at least appear repentant. But the absurdity of this man asking these questions was too much. Unlike the rest of the family, my father does not average six hours of television viewing per day. Any more oblivious to popular culture and he’d sport half the beard and a calendar full of barn raisings.  His sense of humor, keen as it is, grips the literal with both hands. And so the idea of repeating something simply because you’d heard it before and it echoed nicely and your windows happened not to have screens that day—these were dots we had no chance of connecting for him.

So we laughed. Hard.

 THE END AND THE BEGINNING

Defining moments are hard to spot in real time. The first day Elvis left Sun Studio, all he had was a birthday present for his mama. Orville and Wilbur were up for less than sixty seconds. And when she realized she hadn’t made it to the dry cleaners at the end of a long February day, Monica Lewinsky probably just sighed and added another “to-do” to tomorrow’s list. Likewise, it’s not as if everything changed that day between my sister and I. Five years later you’d still have to squint to see the sprouts of an actual relationship breaking the surface of our day-today interactions. But step back far enough and it’s clear that seeds were planted amidst that afternoon’s shenanigans. Know it or not, we’d found our cause.

Granted, it’s no leukemia. It won’t trump a handsy uncle and probably doesn’t even register next to your average divorce or bankruptcy. But as rallying points go, the lampooning of one’s elders will more than suffice. Enough time passes and you accept that there’s nothing sensational or remotely tragic about it. You embrace that it’s common. There’s nothing wrong with common. Common ground is common. And wasn’t that all you were looking for in the first place?

The older Leslie and I get, the more our relationship looks the way it did that day inside our bedrooms. We’ve learned to be a little more proactive, that our garden of sarcasm and parental mockery can use tending from time to time. Still, there’s no need to force things. We take the victories as they come: A recent New Year’s resolution to “finally get serious about the jug band”. The platter of home-smoked (i.e. entirely inedible) meat on a particularly ambitious Thanksgiving. Any number of long-distance tutorials in online shopping.

Even today my sister and I don’t talk all that regularly. Most pertinent information is still relayed through our parents. But, at the very least, twice a year when another of our birthdays rolls around, I can look forward to placing or receiving a call that forgoes all conventional greetings and begins instead with an abrupt dispatch of recent, home-front oddities.

 

JUNE

— Hello?

Dad’s installing a gun safe in the powder room.

 

FEBRUARY

McGee residence…

— Mom taught the dogs to use the ice dispenser.

 

JUNE

— This is Michael—

—    Dad says he can’t hear the TV over the ice crunching and he’s tired of stepping in cold puddles.

—    Ha!

—    No. Not funny. Turn right out of the kitchen and where are you?

— The powder roo—oh Jesus.

 

The calls are treasure to me. They make it almost worth turning a year older. But they’re changing. And with each one it’s a little harder to ignore the tinge of caution that’s creeping into the exchange. It’s a silent hitch, right there in the few beats of dead air after we stop laughing and before we work towards “take care” or “see you soon”. Not sadness exactly, but something jagged and wistful. I know we both hear it. I know we ask ourselves what will happen when the father with the brush fires isn’t around to taunt. I know we dread the day that the mother who returned home and laughed with us seventeen years ago can’t be dragged in again to share the blame. I know we worry, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Yes, being parents, they are the only people who will ever love us that much, in that way. But they’re also our bridge, the filament that connects our current and makes the light come on. So we worry about what will become of us, as brother and sister, when that filament burns out. Will we recognize each other in the dark?

I like to think so, and there’s reason to be optimistic. New bridges are currently under construction. Last April, Leslie and her husband introduced me to a niece who laughs every bit as easy as her grandmother and flashes the same devil in her toddler’s grin. And in a few months I’ll stand up and swap promises with a beautifully disarming woman. All parties seem to enjoy each other’s company, perhaps simply because we want to, and I’m just about convinced it will stay that way. We’ll make the calls. Make the drives. Make the jokes. We’ll laugh, even if it hurts. It will almost be enough.

In the mean time, we’ll keep in touch the old-fashioned, lazy way. Just this morning, Mom tells me Leslie has come down with an especially brutal sinus infection, the kind that dumps broken glass down your throat when you charge your vocal chords with even the slightest whisper.

“Hmm, that sucks.” I say. I’ve always been the empathetic one.

But it does suck. Being sick isn’t the same for working moms. Getting time off will be difficult. She’ll worry about the baby catching it. The figurative headaches will rival the literal ones.

After considering all this, I waffle on whether or not to send the care package. “If she wanted them, she’d buy them herself,” I think. “This might not be the best time for an old joke.”

“Ah, what the hell,” I say, hearing the oversized envelope drum against the bottom of the mailbox. Tomorrow it will be alright. She’ll open the package, see the smaller one inside, hear the warble. And she’ll laugh. Even if it hurts.

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This piece originally appeared at michaelpowelson.wordpress.com in 2011