It was pouring down the rain — the kind of frigid, wet drizzle that only comes from raindrops on the cusp of becoming snowflakes. They were almost there.
It was also a school night, and with the weather, darkness had come early.
There were dozens of noisy, laughing young school children excitedly crowding into the LaBelle Theater in South Charleston a few days ago to watch a movie they’d never heard of about a girl with a strange, thick accent from a country most of them couldn’t pick out on a map.
“Well, I offered free popcorn, you see,” explained Bill Carter, a local cardiologist whose own heart has found a passion for bringing arts and opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them.
“Queen of Katwe” is the true story of a young girl in the slums of Uganda who picked up the game of chess and eventually became an international champion, saving herself and her family from a life of abject poverty.
“I just thought maybe it would be a good thing if some of these kids watched this movie, and maybe they would get the idea that they could do something like that. It could be chess or it could be something else, but the movie might inspire them, you see, and give them the message that these things are possible,” he said.
“It was all just him,” said Maddie Stone, a fourth-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary School.
“He rented out the whole place, bought all the popcorn and the M&M’s,” she said. There were 31 kids from Edgewood Elementary, and another 22 from the Paul Lawrence Dunbar 2nd Avenue Neighborhood Center, plus a scattering of families and other community groups here and there.
The free movie with treats is the latest in a long list of events Carter has pulled together in an effort to provide opportunities thinly disguised as entertainment — primarily for kids on Charleston’s West Side.
It began on the tennis courts there, at the corner of Washington Street West and Edgewood Drive, a few years ago.
“Well, I was playing a game one day and I just thought, ‘Why aren’t more kids using these courts?’ They were almost always empty, and it just seemed that if we could get some kids interested in the game, it might be a good thing for them,” Carter said.
Semiretired after a career of more than 40 years with the Charleston Area Medical Center, he had just enough time on his hands to do a little asking around. He realized such a program would need partners, so he and a well-known friend, Newton Thomas, met with Monty Warner, head of the YMCA of Kanawha Valley.
“They came to me and said, ‘Can’t we get something going here?'” Warner recalled. While Carter and Thomas helped secure funding, Warner turned to Mindy White, then the director of the Y’s tennis program.
“She hired some of the area high school players at $10 an hour — young tennis pros, if you will — offering individualized attention, 30 minutes at a time, from 8 in the morning to noon, and after your eighth lesson you got a free tennis racket,” Warner said.
St. Christopher Episcopal Church, which overlooks the tennis courts, provided free meals to each student throughout the eight-week program.
“A typical summer we see 120, 130 kids, different kids,” White said.
After that first summer in 2016, “we were able to field a girls team” at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, she said, “and last year, we had a girls and a boys team.”
Some of the students from that first summer program are now playing at Capital High School, White said.
Carter’s greatest tennis hope is that one or two of those young players end up with a college scholarship.
“You never know when you’re going to produce the next Serena Williams from the West Side,” Warner said.
As Carter continued to teach and do research, he found other ways to enjoy his very partial retirement. Then, he had a similar experience while attending a performance at the Clay Center. He doesn’t remember which one, but “I looked up and there were these empty seats in the first balcony and the second balcony, and I just thought, ‘Can’t we find a way to use some of these unsold tickets for kids who might not, probably wouldn’t, be able to go to some of these shows?'”
Maybe it would be an afternoon or evening of entertainment, he thought. But maybe it would be more than that. Maybe it would spark an interest — and who knew where that might lead?
He started knocking on doors, looking for unsold tickets and for kids who could come to the shows. He didn’t have to look far.
“After the success of the tennis program, I realized that we had a good working relationship with a lot of the organizations, such as the Bob Burdette Center at Emmanuel Baptist Church, the Dunbar Center with Teresa Brown Johnson, the Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, the Davis Child Center up near the airport,” and plenty of others, he said.
“We’ve been to ‘Cinderella.’ ‘Peter Pan’ is coming up. We’ve been to ‘Mamma Mia!’ We’ve been to ‘Swan Lake.’ So we try to take advantage of these things,” said Teresa Brown Johnson with the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Community Center.
By fall of 2017, he approached FestivALL organizers with an idea for what he called Ticket Town. With funding managed through the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, they launched a Neighborhood Arts Initiative to connect children and teens in the community with art opportunities. Ticket Town became a part of that, making tickets available to performances by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Ballet, Charleston Light Opera Guild and more.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to make one big umbrella that would include all of those sort of youth-related activities,” said Mallory Burka, FestivALL’s Neighborhood Arts Coordinator.
In that first year, she estimates Ticket Town provided tickets for roughly 800 local children, and another 300 since Oct. 1, 2018.
Through it all, the greatest challenge was — and still is — getting kids who’d like to see performances into the seats available for them.
“Some of the students we’re targeting have parents or whoever’s raising them who face a lot of struggles of one kind or another. Others have one or two parents who are both working hard, sometimes two or even three jobs, and they can’t drive them to this or that,” said Carter.
Even the community groups that have access to vans and qualified drivers don’t always have drivers willing to work on nights and weekends or volunteers available to chaperone. He’s formed partnerships with churches and other groups willing and able to assist.
A few dozen tickets here, a couple of drivers and vans over there. It’s a hodgepodge, patchwork of solutions — but somehow, it comes together.
The “Queen of Katwe” showing was the first event orchestrated by Carter alone. He reached out to the LaBelle Theater and arranged for the movie to be shown, then he reached out to groups that have brought kids to other events.
“I just liked the movie and thought it would be a good thing to make it available to some of the children in our community,” he said.
“You know if you have two or three or four kids and you take them to the movies, you know you have to buy popcorn, maybe something to drink. By the time it’s all done, it’s $50, $60. Not everyone can do that, and it’s not the same watching it on television,” he said.
The payoff for all the effort, he said, was hearing about kids who were intrigued by what they saw.
“One little girl today that went with us last night, she started studying the pieces to the chessboard and I said, ‘Look at this!’ To see that she was really taking the time, actually studying the pieces,” said Teresa Brown Johnson with the Dunbar Center the day after the movie. “I don’t even know how to play chess, so I think it’s something I need to find out about.”
“We had a lot of conversations about it at school today,” said Maddie Stone from Edgewood Elementary. “I have some students who want to play chess, so now we’re talking about hopefully getting that started.”
The message, Carter said, is simple. “Hey, this is something you can do, too. You may have some talents that aren’t being used. My fantasy is that it would lead to a scholarship for somebody who managed to get on the tennis team or something else they might be interested in.”
Donations can be made through the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation at tgkvf.org. More information on Ticket Town or the Neighborhood Arts Initiative is available at festivall charleston.com/neighborhood ARTS. Email Mallory Burka at [email protected] or call 304-470-0489.