Lester Shaw Brings Pockets of Hope to Tulsa

student members of a pocket full of hope stand in front of a building

Participants in the A Pocket Full of Hope program

“Where are the pockets of hope?” Lester Shaw asked himself years ago as he listened to a young gang member speak during a “Gangs, Drugs & Violence” graduate class at the University of Oklahoma. “I was working on my masters degree at the time,” Shaw recalled. “Everything in our literature was about ‘pockets of despair,’ ‘pockets of poverty’…I’m working with these kids, and I see they’re in these housing complexes and they’re poor, but there are some good kids. They just want opportunities. I wanted to create these pockets of hope.”

A certified and experienced teacher whose impressive resume includes stints as a Family Relations Specialist and substance abuse counselor in addition to years working with at-risk youth, Shaw was well aware of the challenges many teenagers face, and he wanted to do something about it. “I wanted to be more up close and personal and more consistent, and the way to do that was to start my own organization,” Shaw recounted.

In 2000, the nonprofit A Pocket Full of Hope (APFoH) was born. Located near Apache and Peoria in North Tulsa, APFoH offers dance, photography, video, music and theater programming for youth ages 7-19. After-school programs run from 4-8 p.m., with tutoring available on Wednesdays and camps each summer.

Shaw, APFoH’s executive director, also leads an annual “Youth Empowerment Tour” every spring break. “This year we’re going to Atlanta,” Shaw said. “While we’re there, we have two performances, and we’re going to be visiting some area colleges. We’ll also be visiting the Martin Luther King Center and the Civil Rights museum…A lot of these kids have never been out of Tulsa. This is a way for them to be exposed to different things, to use their gifts and their talents to get them places. To let them know all they have to do is work on their craft, organize and plan, and then make things happen.”

A talented singer and songwriter in his own right, Shaw can count on his musician friends to help with programming. Former APFoH members also volunteer. “Our main volunteers are our Pocket Player Leadership Mentors,” Shaw explained. “These are kids who’ve been through Pocket and graduated. Most of them have gone through college, and they come back and run it. They have sessions on what college is like. They teach dance classes; they teach video classes.”

It’s these relationships with the kids that are important to Shaw. “I have a lot of experience teaching kids and acknowledging the individual needs of young people. I’m teaching them (the mentors) how to do that. You can’t paint everybody with a broad brush…I’m teaching them how to identify those special needs for kids who may just not get it like everybody else. We focus on relationship building.”

APFoH continues to grow. Renovations have begun on the nearby “Big Ten Ballroom” to provide more space for programs and performances. Shaw believes the Ballroom will be a great fit for APFoH, both because of its size (14000 square feet) and its history. “It was a major music venue in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said. Performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Temptations once graced its stage. “It was built during segregation. When Ray Charles came to town, everybody wanted to see him. They had to put a rope down the middle of the building. Whites were on one side; blacks were on the other side. But check this out,” Shaw laughed. “We’ve been interviewing people who still remember it, and they said when the music started, nobody knew where that rope went. Music united the people. It just unites people.”

APFoH will soon start programming for younger kids. “We’ve been here long enough that some of our members are having babies, and people have been asking us to start doing things with younger kids, so we’re starting our Tiny Pockets Program,” Shaw said. The first event is a baby showcase on Feb. 13 at OSU-Tulsa. There are also plans for new music and movement programs for 3-5 year-olds.

Shaw brings everything he’s learned over the years from his varied careers as a musician, counselor and educator to his work at APFoH. “It’s just amazing how your life kind of sets you up,” he reflected. “Mine set me up for what I’m doing now. It’s been an amazing journey, I’m telling you.”

For more information on A Pocket Full of Hope and Lester Shaw, visit www.apocketfullofhope.com.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: Community Connections