Written by Rachel Hauben Combs, Development Director
A wise Chicago theatre artist once said that and it has never been truer. Today, both artistic endeavors and social justice causes are increasingly dependent on individual donors.
In 2016, our very own “Temporary Lockdown” (TLD) program at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center was nearly a casualty of the not-for-profit funding crisis. For years, a single foundation had provided the bulk of TLD’s program budget. When that dedicated funder shifted its strategy and focus, Storycatchers faced an excruciating choice: whether to eliminate the program for fiscal year 2017/2018.
“I couldn’t let that happen,” said TLD program manager Cheri Coons. “It seemed tragic to me, and not just because the program at the Detention Center was where Storycatchers’ work with youth living in juvenile justice facilities began in 1990. I kept thinking of the kids we had built relationships with over the 2015/2016 program cycle — kids that were expecting us to return in September. We needed an angel.”
Theatre “angels” have long been a part of the process of making musicals in the professional theatrical community of New York City. “Angels” is the term Broadway producers use for individuals who invest private funds in projects that mean something to them personally. They’re the same people Irving Berlin talked about in the song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun. You may recall Ethel Merman belting out the lyrics, “Angels come from everywhere with lots of jack. Where could you get money that you don’t give back? “
“Giving back” is exactly what Coons’ friends Stephen Henderson and James LaForce of New York did when they personally underwrote a substantial portion of TLD’s 2016/2017 budget, and continued supporting the program for the 2017/2018 fiscal year. Henderson and LaForce support many worthy causes, but it was their personal connection with Coons, and the anecdotes that she has shared with them about her work with the young people at the Detention Center, that moved them to donate to the TLD program.
“We count it among the great pleasures in our lives, not only to know Cheri Coons, but to have heard stories over the past few years about her endeavors with Storycatchers Theatre,” said Henderson. “We are deeply moved by this organization’s excellent work.”
Henderson and LaForce’s generous donation gave Storycatchers time to find additional funding from new sources that more than made up for the lost support. Best of all, the TLD program never missed a beat. Thanks to Henderson and LaForce, the program started right on time in September 2016 and has continued on a year-round schedule.
The Temporary Lockdown Ensemble presented its original musical, “Living Life Backwards,” the culmination of a full year’s work, on August 25 and 26, 2017. The musical was based on the original stories of more than 20 participants in the TLD program and featured original song lyrics by the Ensemble members and composer Diana Lawrence. More than 100 youth were touched by this program last year, either as writers, performers, or audience members. TLD started up again in September 2017, and presented the first staged reading of the new program year on November 17.
Henderson and LaForce’s friendship with Coons has deep roots. Coons and Henderson have been close friends since they met in college in the late 1970s. “The gift of my extraordinary friendship with Stephen and James is something I am grateful for on-a-daily-basis. I think of the two them every Tuesday and Friday night when I walk into the Detention Center. They’re nearly 800 miles away, but they are an intimate part of my work with these kids.”
Storycatchers has its share of angels: both the participants in our programs and the supporters who make this work possible. We are grateful to all of them. Thank you, Stephen Henderson and James LaForce, for keeping this program alive! Thanks are also due to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center Foundation and the Walter E. Heller Foundation, which joined Coons’ friends last year, as well as the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, which came on board as a TLD supporter in the fall of 2017.
Together, these angels form a village that makes sure that the TLD program remains in operation at the Detention Center all year round.