Ben Vereen

Ben Vereen, photo by Isak Tiner

*Entertainment legend Ben Vereen is on a mission. He’s devoting his full attention to restoring the arts to kids in public schools, and he’s been walking the walk for awhile.

“I knew nothing about the arts when I was very young, growing up in Brooklyn,” the 69-year-old icon told me. “I came in contact with a few angels, teachers and administrators at my junior high school, who were trying to generate interest in the arts there. I remember sitting with one of my teachers as she tearfully read a letter from a kid in the Midwest who dreamed of being able to study the arts in school.”

“I realized early on how the arts could affect people’s lives,” he continued, “and how not everyone had access to a school like the one I went to.”

Vereen went on from the High School of the Performing Arts to conquer the Broadway stage, motion pictures and television, earning a Tony for his role in Pippin and an Emmy for his portrayal of Chicken George in the original Roots miniseries. But as he took the entertainment industry by storm, he never lost his zeal for connecting young people to the arts.

Now, he’s using his platform to restore interest in arts programs. Having launched his successful Wellness Through the Arts (WTA) program in San Diego in 2014, Vereen’s added Sacramento as a venue this year, and envisions WTA programs in cities nationwide.

WTA’s participants — many of whom are managing bullying, obesity, low self esteem and diabetes — are invited to describe their “best day” via a written essay or video expression. A panel of professionals evaluates the submissions, and finalists are presented in a public showcase where Vereen announces the winners and personally presents the awards.

“We’re giving the arts back to kids who go to schools that do not have arts programs,” Vereen shared. “It’s a silly thing, to me, to disconnect ourselves from that which created us. God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus…whatever you want to call Him…is the Creator. What the Creator creates is ‘art’. Studies have shown that kids who are denied art don’t pay attention as much to any of their academics. When they don’t have art, they’re less, not more.”

Read more at EURThisNthat.