Editor’s Note: In honor and memory of Sharon Litwin, The Queen here at NolaVie, we will be publishing a piece from her every day for the next month. Sharon was an advocate and spokeswoman for arts, culture, people, and policies here in New Orleans. Her voice and sharp wit will be greatly missed.
To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Rev. Lonell Wright on WWNO radio, click here.
Many people, when they reach three score and ten years, have already retired, thinking about an annual cruise to some place exotic, weekly golf games or a bit of gardening.
Not Lonell Wright. He has become a role model for actively transforming what used to be called “golden age” into a sort of plus-plus middle age. At least that’s how it looks to anyone watching the pace of his life. Retired, he is not.
Initially, this successful businessman, after selling off several McDonald’s in Central City, did look forward to days doing little more than going fishing or playing with his grandchildren. Instead, after struggling with a late-in-life calling he didn’t even know he had, he became an Episcopal priest.
Now, with his fishing rod and golf clubs tucked well out of sight, he has replaced thoughts of sailing the seven seas with trawling the Lower Nine for underserved children in need of tutoring. Working out of a former neighborhood drugstore that locals have dubbed St. Walgreen’s, he has created All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center at the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Caffin Street.
Not content with creating daily after-school tutoring programs for kids woefully under-educated, he and a tiny staff, assisted by neighborhood parents and volunteers, also provide them daily with meals and snacks. He has stocked a small library of books and, most amazing of all, has organized the Youth Orchestra of the Lower Ninth Ward, an all-string ensemble playing on donated violins, violas, cellos and bass.
It takes energy, determination, more energy, lots of fund-raising and more energy again to keep all of Rev. Wright’s new “enterprises” afloat. And he has been at it day and night for the past three years. It’s pretty hard to keep up with him.
“We started our program in the fall of 2009,” Rev. Wright says. “And then we probably had something like 12 to 14 kids. Now we have about 65 in our tutoring program and 20 to 25 of them are in the Youth Orchestra.”
Stunned by their academic needs, as well as their frequent lack of appropriate social responses, Rev. Wright spends every waking moment trying to bring area kids’ knowledge up to grade appropriate level.
“We have had kids here — 7-year-old kids in the second grade – who can’t read, can’t add, and yet they’re in the second grade,” he says. “What we are attempting to do is get them into a situation where, while we feed them and we love them, we’re teaching them how to read and write and respect authority.”
This Saturday, from 6 to 9 p.m., Lonell Wright gets to show off his Community Center to nearby parents, donors and citywide supporters at Soul-A-Bration, All Souls’ first annual silent auction and dinner. And while there will be lots of good food and auction items donated by some of the major restaurants and businesses around town, it’s clear that what’s putting a gleam in his eye is the debut of the Youth Orchestra of the Lower Ninth Ward.
For more information about Soul-A-Bration and the work of All Souls Episcopal Church, click here: www.allsoulsnola.org.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.