By: Sara Hoover
When sophomore Nadia Matthews started her own nonprofit foundation at age 16, she
never imagined it would lead her to The Tyra Banks Show and a national audience last year, but that’s exactly what happened.
The communications major founded the Lily Roze Foundation, named after her two grandmothers,
in 2007. The organization originally started off as a support group for teenagers
to discuss epidemics that affected them, but has grown into much more.
Matthews began the foundation after finding herself in trouble.
“I was at Craigmont High School my freshman year,” said the Memphis native. “That’s
when I made my transformation from class president to being around gang members. I
got initiated (into a gang) and into fights.
“Some middle school friends and I wanted to do something and make a difference (in
our lives). We started putting together creative things like videos and skits because
I was always into theatre. ‘Why don’t we spread this around?’ That’s when I got the
best advice, ‘Do a nonprofit. You can reach more people.’”
Matthews’ overcame her situation by finding solace in writing her first play.
“I give credit to the arts because I saw myself getting completely sidetracked and
it was a hard time for me. When I started writing the play, I was so consumed with
completing the project. That’s when I wanted girls to get into ballerina or the arts
where they have to concentrate. Then they’ll take their minds off the negative things.”
Which is what Matthews did with her stage play, A Ghetto Fairytale.
Matthews wrote, produced and directed the play while attending high school and performing
in her school’s productions.
“A Ghetto Fairytale conquered every situation a teen can possibly have trouble with, from drugs and alcohol
to teen pregnancy. We wanted to do a show-and-tell method. We were going into classrooms
and talking. We really wanted to show them their life on stage and make it as realistic
as possible. I wanted to help people and teach them because I knew they weren’t listening
when we were talking to them.”
The sold-out show had a four-night run at the Little Theatre at LeMoyne-Owen College.
Yo Memphis, the performing arts high school Matthews was attending, was to be the
venue, but backed out a few weeks before the opening. Matthews had to scramble to
find a new location. She struck a deal with LeMoyne that they could keep the proceeds
if she could rent the space for free. The play raised more than $10,000 and was donated
to LeMoyne-Owen. Matthews was honored this past summer as being one of the youngest
contributors to the College. She’s considering an encore performance this spring at
the DeSoto Civic Center.
Matthews’ family supported her efforts while trying to get the foundation started.
“I always encouraged my children to live out their dreams,” said Nancy Jubert-Matthews.
“Nadia said, ‘Mama, I have $300 and want to stop working to invest that into a play.
It’s going to occupy the majority of my time. You don’t have to give me any money.
I’m going to raise some money on my own.’ That’s when I know she had the qualities
to run a nonprofit.”
Matthews, who appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, turned early turmoil in her life into
a nonprofit organization that uses the creative arts to help teenagers focus on
the positives in their lives. (Photo by Lindsey Lissau)
The foundation’s motto is, “We plant seeds so the world can watch you bloom,” which
came to Matthews in a dream.
“It was so exotic, kids coming from the buds of the flowers,” said Matthews. “I want
to plant seeds in the neighborhoods, churches. I want to watch these children and
teenagers bloom not just into successful parents, but into college-educated, young
adults. Blooming means branching out.”
The foundation’s target audience is teenagers, ages 12 to 17.
One of the foundation’s recent programs is “First Class Saturdays,” which introduces
different continents, cultures and landmarks to Memphis youth. The biweekly program
will bring Chinatown, Hollywood, New York and even the camping experience to the youth.
Incorporated into each program is a lesson or skill tied to that week’s theme.
“First class (travel) is the highest accommodation and we want to get these kids into
the mentality that they are first class. Since some kids in Memphis don’t really get
a chance to travel and see all these beautiful landmarks, we’re going to bring the
world to them. If it’s Hollywood-style, we’ll teach them public speaking, so they’ll
learn how to talk in front of a crowd. We’re teaching them culture, language, educational-based
activities. We want them to feel like they’re at these landmarks.”
Another recent program is the “Teen vs. Ten Challenge.” The idea is for teens to take
on the 10 pressing epidemics facing that age group, including teen pregnancy, high
school dropout, drugs and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
The challenge is Web-based with a social forum for participants. It is expected to
expand to blogs, videos and write-in essays.
“When I was at The Tyra Show, I was telling some of the America’s Next Top Model participants about what I’m trying to do. So, they’re going to via satellite join
our commercial (for the challenge).”
The challenge will also have an international audience in 10 other countries through
a radio broadcast.
Matthews, 20, also hopes to take the foundation national within the next five years.
Upon graduation, she plans to pursue news anchoring, produce plays on a national level
and continue to be the director of her nonprofit.
“A lot of people have nonprofits and have been working a long time, but a degree from
the University of Memphis will help me stand out and let them know that I conquered
this. Fifty percent never actually graduate once they start college. My goal is to
get these teenagers away from being a statistic and I don’t want to be a statistic
of just a filmmaker who did not have a college education.”
To help teens stay on track and provide a safe haven for them, Matthews is renovating
the W.C. Handy Theatre. The 17,000-square-feet space is currently boarded up with
a collapsed roof and flooded basement, but plans include production, music and dance
studios and a Wi-Fi café for teenagers.
“It’s going to be a place where teenagers and children can walk to and have free classes.
They will have a studio where they come in and perfect their craft. We want a big
forum where kids start learning how to sing and write their music and explore their
talents. I had a good support group that helped me through my high school, so I really
want them to befriend each other. We’ve got big dreams for this theatre.”
The capital campaign to renovate the building began in January and the theatre is
expected to open during the summer of 2011.
Matthews, who has a love of theatre, created a nonprofit foundation that provides
a safe haven for students on a number of fronts.
(Photo by Lindsey Lissau)
While touring the theatre with the owner, Matthews had an epiphany.
“I was walking on crushed glass and pigeon feathers. I really thought I was walking
on all these crushed dreams. It felt so hopeless to me. It was a big building that
was full of life. Everything symbolized these past 33 years that it’s been closed.
That’s what I told him, ‘I’m just stepping on these dreams that never exited this
theatre and got to perform.’ That’s what we want to do with the theatre, bring it
back to people dreaming about it so there can be hope again.”
The space will also be used to put on future plays and as rehearsal space. It didn’t
hurt that Elvis Presley performed there, considering Matthews is a die-hard Elvis
fan and former Graceland employee.
Sitting in Elvis’ limo at Graceland is actually when Matthews got the call that she
would be on The Tyra Banks Show. Her older sister wrote to the show to nominate her since the theme was “dedicated
teens and deserving women who deserve makeovers.”
“I called my sister and was like, ‘This is the best day of my life. I’m sitting in
Elvis’ limo right now. They let me sit in it.’ She was like, ‘I got some bigger news.
The Tyra Show called me and they want you to come up to New York.’ Oh, forget Elvis’ limo.”
Matthews went on the “Model for a Day”-themed show and received a makeover and photo
shoot. Banks bestowed the title “Goddess of Hope and Riches” on Matthews because of
her hope for the community and riches for the youth.
Matthews’ latest hope and riches is her stage play, Bitter/Sweet 16, which will be performed in March at the Rose Theatre on the U of M campus. She wrote
and produced it.
“I have 10 screenplays written. Writing is my passion. Once I start on a story, it’s
really hard to stop.”
From an early age, Matthews exhibited her interest in the theatre and the arts. According
to Jubert-Matthews, her daughter was never shy, even at age 3.
“Nadia would boldly always step in front of group activities and just speak out and
really try to be a leader in the classroom so much so that the teachers would say,
‘Nadia just says things. She might be our next president, but she’s insubordinate.’
As a parent, I had to tone her down a bit. I started getting her into activities where
she could talk a lot.”
While others might find being a full-time student, running a nonprofit and renovating
a theatre daunting, Jubert-Matthews knows that her daughter views it differently.
“Nadia looks at life through a telescope of faith. She doesn’t have any fear of any
adventures. I can foresee her dreams becoming reality and that’s her goals: education,
operating a business and being a successful playwright. I appreciate the University
of Memphis, the City of Memphis, our friends and most of all our family that have
given her the support that she needs to go out and conquer her challenges.”
For more details on Matthews’ nonprofit, visit www.lilyroze.com.