You have to wonder what Paul and Tracy Wilkes did.
Rob banks? Run a Ponzi scheme?
They had to have done something terrible.
Because no couple devotes so much of their time to doing good.
“Get back in the building.”
I got back in the building. Something about her shouting at me, locking the door behind me and rushing us into a room where a dozen or so people – mostly kids – were waiting, wide-eyed and worried, but safe. “There’s a big fight outside — about 50 neighborhood teens — and some of them probably have weapons.”
The way Tracy Wilkes talks, this is just one of those daily annoyances – like traffic or humidity.
Fourteen years ago, Tracy – a theatre major-turned-family therapist – realized that Wilmington had no free arts programs for underprivileged youth. For someone who thinks art is as important as food, water, and shelter, this was a major problem. So she founded DREAMS. “Art is the language of the soul,” she says. “We’re simply giving kids a few outlets for speaking.”
A “few.” More like dozens: photography, spoken word, step class, ceramics, comic-making, carpentry, painting, silk screening to name a “few.”
The coast is clear and we’re back in her studio. “When you’re from neighborhoods like these, trouble is going to find you everywhere,” she says by way of explanation for what just happened. “You get in trouble at school, then you get in trouble at home because you’re in trouble at school. What we’re doing here is showing these kids that they’re actually good at something. When they realize that, it changes the entire trajectory.”
She is quick to point out that DREAMS isn’t about art for art’s sake. “We expect them to show up, to commit, and they do,” she says. According to Wilkes, only 54% of students from Wilmington’s poorer neighborhoods graduate high school. At Dreams, 99% do. Which is even more impressive when you find out that they work with more than 600 kids each year.
It’s not just the kids who benefit; oftentimes the parents are transformed, too. Tracy’s favorite story involves a 9-year old boy who, despite being a gifted painter, was constantly getting in trouble at school. One day, she called his mother and asked her to stop by. Thinking her son was in trouble, again, she walked into the room in a huff. The child backed up against the wall and pointed to his creation. Her jaw dropped and she started to cry.
“It was if a switch was thrown” Wilkes says. After years on a negative feedback loop, she was able to see her son in a new light, that he was good at something. “After witnessing that, you can’t tell me that art isn’t important.”
No. We can’t.
Paul Wilkes is a man’s man.
Which is why he doesn’t get choked up when he tells Reena’s story.
He doesn’t look away or clear his throat; he just pauses.
It all began six years ago, when Paul and Tracy were on vacation in India. They had a few hours to kill and their driver asked them what they wanted to see in the city of Kochi. “I’m Catholic,” he blurted out. “What is my church doing to alleviate this grinding poverty — to help these poor people?” Instead of telling him, the driver took the couple to an orphanage where 60 street children were being housed and educated by nuns. After a quick tour, Paul was ready to give them whatever money he had in his pocket when he noticed a shy girl standing quietly in the shadow of the nuns. She had sunglasses on; none of the other kids did and Paul asked why.
One of the nuns removed the glasses from her face and what Paul saw is why he pauses now recounting the story. One eye was perfect, the other was a swirl of gray. The Beggar Mafia (a la Slumdog Millionaire) had kidnapped her and gouged out her eye with a darning needle to make her a “better beggar.”
I squirm in my seat.
“That’s exactly what I did,” Paul says. “That very thing. My face looked just like yours. And she returned my grimace with the most beautiful, trusting smile I had ever seen in my life. I decided right then to make that girl’s future – and as many other girls like her – better than her past.”
And that’s how Homes of Hope India-U.S. – a non-profit that raises money for the orphanage that inspired the idea — was born. It started small — raising money to buy foam mattresses and coverlets so the girls wouldn’t have to sleep with only thin straw mats between them and the concrete floor.
Right now, they’re raising money to build a third orphanage in South India.
“You know, you get to a point in your life where there’s not a lot of oil left and you simply go, ‘What do I really want out of these twilight years?,’” he says. “And these girls, these ninth-class citizens, don’t have much of a chance. You’re a poor female orphan – that’s strike one. You’re uneducated – that’s strike two. I’m not going to let that third strike happen.”
And trust me, I’ve met the guy… he won’t.
Paul and Tracy Wilkes. A writer and a theatre major. Both doing wonderful things in Wilmington for local kids and kids halfway around the world.
Do their type-A personalities ever turn competitive?
“No,” Tracy laughs. “At least not with the charities.”