After couples are together for a certain amount of time, especially when their relationship spans decades, they tend to end each other’s sentences during a conversation because they’re so accustomed to one another. With Penny and Gerald Williams, they finish—and sometimes start—one another’s thoughts, but not solely due to familiarity. These two remarkable and accomplished individuals are not only on the same page, but they are extremely driven to educate and empower children through Excite All Stars, the growing and successful non-profit they founded after Katrina.
I interviewed Penny and Gerald at a local coffee shop to talk about how they became a “power couple” and launched their non-profit that benefits children. They met during college while Penny was at LSU and Gerald was at Tulane. “We met at a place in the Hyatt called Georgie Porgie's and from that night on, we connected,” recalled Gerald. They went on to date for four years before tying the knot and spent some years working in Atlanta prior to moving back to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina was the tipping point that changed their lives forever. “Being a pastor, I look at things in a unique way,” said Gerald. “We had a paradigm shift like everyone else after Katrina…we had a kairos moment.” He was referencing a Greek word that when translated, means a transformative moment in your life that, when it happens, nothing is ever the same afterwards.
“We lost everything except for three days worth of clothes,” said Penny. “We lost a home and a business and to get wiped out to that magnitude…well, it changed our thinking about what was important and what we valued,” added Gerald who then explained the inspiration for Excite All Stars. “We decided we wanted to be part of the recovery effort and looked at how we could make the biggest impact…that was to reach kids as young as possible and give them a different outlook and position them for future success in life.”
Their 10-week summer program for kids between six and 14 operates five days a week from 7am until 6pm and is designed to help working parents; its success has been exponential. “In 2007, we had 25 youths and the next we had 45 and then 75 the following year. Last year, we served 125 youths only because we were limited by the size of the facility we were using,” explained Penny. Gerald elaborated on this information. “We had a wait list of over 100 kids. When everyone started hearing about the program, they wanted in, especially when they found out we had a sponsorship from Nike.” The interest from the sports powerhouse was a marketing godsend for the organization; Nike's executives were looking to sponsor a youth program here in New Orleans and flew down from Oregon to meet solely with Penny and Gerald, which speaks volumes about the caliber of the organization that they have created.
For the entire summer, parents pay just $125 and, when broken down to the cost per hour, it’s just 25 cents. Considering the expense of daycare and sitters, this is an extraordinary bargain and involves a multitude of activities. “We average 15 field trips during those weeks. We go to the zoo and the aquarium,” said Penny. “We go rock climbing, canoeing, swimming and play tennis and laser tag.” Gerald smiled while Penny talked. “We want the kids to have a world class experience and, I think, the parents would want to come to camp if they could,” he said.
All activities are age appropriate but there are some that are done as a whole organization. Penny and Gerald also think it’s important to incorporate education on healthy lifestyles. With their Get Fit For Life program, they focus on Zumba, yoga and dancing in addition to other sports to keep kids physically active; interactive video games only include Wii. “Nike provided research on youth development and this is the first generation of youth that are dying five years younger than their parents,” said Gerald, shaking his head in disbelief. “Our mission is to change that trajectory. We want to help kids get those five years back by not being sedentary; we keep them moving.”
This couple also believes in teaching kids how to handle finances and operate a business with entrepreneurial programs such as Café Duke. "The kids do the shopping, pricing, menus, accounting and marketing to other campers," said Gerald. Proceeds go to fund a special field trip of their choice as well as a charity such as the ASPCA or an Alzheimer’s association. “We teach the kids to give back, pay it forward and reap the benefits of their labor.”
The biggest challenge now for the duo is to figure out how to keep their program feeling intimate while continuing to grow. They’re adamant about maintaining small class sizes with 15 to 20 kids and keeping their teacher/counselor ratio at six to one when the normal rate is a dozen to one. This summer, they’re working in conjunction with the newly renovated Joe Brown Park where kids in the program can take advantage of the running tracks, basketball and tennis courts as well as an indoor swimming pool. Penny and Gerald's future plans focus on expanding the age range to 18 in addition to developing a program with Junior Achievement and Delgado to further instruct kids on how to run a business; they are also in the process of developing their own multi-acre facility in East New Orleans off Chef Menteur.
While they work as team, Gerald is more than complimentary towards his wife, mentioning how grateful he is for her passionate commitment to the organization and her ability to keep the day-to-day running while he’s out in the field. One thing that's for sure is that because of this dynamic couple, Excite All Stars will positively impact children’s lives for many years to come. “We want kids to be excited about learning, life, relationships and what this culture and community is really about. They don’t understand the richness of the community they live in because they only see it from the crime, violence and destitution. We want to spark hope, enthusiasm and excitement for life in our kids,” said Penny? Or Gerald? When it comes right down to it, there’s no difference because when it involves their mission for kids, these two exceptional voices speak as one from start to finish.
For more information on Excite All Stars, click here to visit their Facebook page.