By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

In an ordinary summer, as the sun sizzles outside, Blumenthal welcomes hundreds of young scholars from Freedom School Partners into Belk Theater for a cool afternoon of fun. This is one of the unique enrichment opportunities available to scholars, grades K – 8, who participate in the annual six-week summer program, hosted at locations throughout the Queen City. Freedom School Partners focuses on preventing summer learning loss and sparking a passion for reading and learning with its full days of programming, including a culturally diverse literacy curriculum, fun afternoon activities, as well as meals and transportation for students, who otherwise would not have access to a comprehensive summer enrichment program.

But this summer is anything but ordinary.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Freedom School Partners had to rethink its typical offerings to ensure community safety. Despite many operational challenges posed by the virus, the organization knew it needed to offer an alternative program because the stakes of doing nothing were too high.

“The disruption of the school year this year is going to have a devastating effect,” says Nikki Keith, Chief Development Officer of Freedom School Partners. “Summer learning loss is real for any child, any year, any day and that is even a stronger effect on children of color, children living in poverty and then you put COVID on top of that and it’s just a very stark reality that we still have to keep kids focused on reading and learning, we have to get supplies in the hands of families and do what we can to support that need.”

The solution has been FSP 2020 R.E.S.P.O.N.S.E. (Reading and Enrichment for Scholars Plus Other Needed Supplies and Essentials), running at 12 pop-up locations throughout the city, through July 31. Sites operate from 11am – 1pm, Monday through Thursday with books, an enrichment packet and snacks available each day. Fun Friday hands-on activities will also be provided by community partners bi-weekly, operating with social distancing measures in place, including masks required for all participants. There is also a virtual component to the program featuring guest readers, including Mayor Vi Lyles, who will record special YouTube videos for scholars. Throughout the program, participants will receive copies of these books too, so they can follow along.


Keith says the organization looks forward to returning to normal operations and a trip to Blumenthal as soon as it’s possible:

“It is a special relationship … With afternoon enrichment, we work really hard to make our program just as good if not better than a summer experience that children would have if their parents could afford to pay. And Blumenthal is key in making that happen.

“Many of our students have not been to a professional theater, let alone Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and seeing something that’s geared toward them. So, to have a show that’s specifically for children and to have that theater experience, it makes that enrichment experience for our scholars so much more meaningful. They talk about it. There are still the kids that remember when they saw ‘The Lion King’ or ‘Annie’ or other things from way back. I think last year was ‘Aladdin,’ which was amazing.”

The Blumenthal relationship also helps inspire other community partners to get involved. “When we say, ‘Oh and Blumenthal basically underwrites a show’—I mean you all make it happen—all we have to do is distribute tickets and show up … that raises the bar for expectations for other community partners of thinking about how they can support initiatives, not just for Freedom Schools but for children broadly in our community, that could use it,” says Keith. “So thank you for doing that and thank all the people like Chase [Law, Blumenthal’s VP of Development] and others that raise that money and figure it out so that all we have to do is show up.”

(Freedom School Partners arriving at Belk Theater for a performance of The Little Mermaid in 2017)

If you would like to get involved, Freedom School Partners is seeking volunteers, people willing to advocate for children and strong schools, as well as financial support. You can also contribute to Blumenthal’s Arts for All program, which helps bring young people like Freedom School scholars to see live theatrical events.