By Kaitlyn McCormick
August 29, 2022
Two sisters, a deathbed regret and a spare $100 started the Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation (AOK), a unique New Jersey nonprofit that funds students ages 7-22 pursuing the performing arts.
When their father died from ALS(Lou Gehrig’s disease), sisters CEO Jodi Grinwald and President Melissa Grinwald-Bartz racked their brains to find a way to honor him. Knowing that their father was a songwriter and opera singer who lamented up until his death that he was unable to afford vocal lessons until his 30s, the sisters decided to start a nonprofit that would help spare kids in the area from sharing in that same regret. And when it was time to open up an account for the foundation, the sisters remembered their dad’s wallet that had been sitting in a drawer since his death almost two years prior, along with the $100 inside of it. “We let him start the bank account,” Grinwald said.
AOK, which launched in 2017, fully funds students aged 7-18 who meet the foundation’s financial aid requirements to take ongoing performing arts lessons, including dance, acting, instrumental music or vocal instruction. Along with the one class per week in the student’s desired area of study, funding includes any added expenses where necessary, such as instruments or dance costumes.
Grinwald explained that when starting this organization, the co-founders didn’t want to create a “one and done” deal for students by funding only a limited schedule of classes, fearing they would introduce kids to something they love only to have it taken away after a short period of time. This same theology is what brought the founders to developing the Applaud and Give Back Program to support young adults who normally would have aged out of other services.
Grinwald said, “We did not want to be another organization that, as [the students] are in love with something, they’re losing something else again. And so we said, well, now that they’re adults, what can we do?”
This program allows young adults aged 18-22 to continue to receive funding from AOK for their weekly lesson, so long as they commit to dedicating 40 hours of their time between September and June to volunteer for the organization. They can assist in computer work, do phone calls or even perform at events.
Lovey Durrua, a 19-year-old from Manahawkin, NJ, involved with AOK’s Applaud and Give Back Program, lauded the organization for the work it does to support kids and young adults pursuing the performing arts. Durrua has been a part of AOK for roughly 2 and a half years, and met co-founders Grinwald and Grinwald-Bartz at an open mic. After learning about the program, Durrua applied and began receiving funding to attend a weekly vocal lesson. When she aged out of the initial funding phase at 18, she became a part of the Applaud and Give Back Program, which would allow her to keep attending her lessons.
During her involvement with AOK, and with the help of her vocal instructor through the organization, Durrua was able to write and release an original song on Spotify. “It’s been really rewarding. I’ve loved having singing lessons every week. …I can definitely tell that I’ve come a long way,” Durrua said.
What sets AOK apart from a lot of other performing arts centered nonprofits is how hands-on they are. Opposed to many programs that take place primarily in school buildings, “we’re after school and we’re personal,” Grinwald said. With AOK, every aspect of a student’s funding and experience is thought out to give them the most fitting option.
“We do a lot of research on every single studio…we meet the owners, we do background checks on the teachers, we take tours. …We know that we’ve got to place them in places that are safe,” Grinwald explained. And if AOK can’t find a suitable studio or lesson option within a student’s vicinity, they will fund teachers to participate in that student’s community.
Because of this in-depth nature, funding and donations are extremely important, especially as the nonprofit hopes to expand and service more students.
AOK hosts two signature fundraising events throughout the year. In the fall, AOK holds their Step Into the Spotlight Soiree and Talent Competition. Tickets are sold and sponsors are gained for the event, where celebrity guests from TV, film and Broadway judge a night of performances. Last year’s panel included the executive director from the Grammy’s and Fredi Walker Browne, who originated the character Joanne in the Broadway musical “Rent.”
In the spring, all of the foundation’s students get together for a Scholarship Showcase. At this sponsored event, students perform the talent they’ve been nurturing through their lessons made possible by AOK, and tickets are sold to attend. The AOK Performance Group, a sponsored group of auditioned kids 7-22 who are not students funded by the foundation, also performs and joins the funded students for a combined finale that is learned that same morning.
The Performance Group is a fundraising pillar in and of itself, and they’ve performed at Feinstein’s 54 Below in NYC for two fundraisers, as well as at the JBJ Soul Kitchen many times where they’ve met John Bon Jovi.
While many nonprofit organizations had major setbacks due to the Coronavirus pandemic, especially in terms of funding, Grinwald said that AOK “soared.” The foundation quickly pivoted to use Zoom, and they were able to create even more awareness for the organization and reach more students by utilizing an online platform. “We created a way to let people know about the organization, get more kids involved, parents to see us,” Grinwald described of their switch to virtual events.
The organization ran three overarching zoom classes that anyone could join — a hip hop dance party, an acting class and a Broadway dance class — all while keeping up with lessons for students who were already being funded by the organization at the time.
“Our funders actually got really excited about what we were doing because they saw that we were keeping the kids connected during a very difficult time,” Grinwald said, recounting that one funder tripled their donation that year.
What started as a local nonprofit in Ocean County has successfully turned into a way to help kids in the performing arts statewide. “In the beginning I felt like I was the CEO of a lemonade stand,” Grinwald said, but AOK has surely progressed from its humble beginnings. And while the next goal is to move into the New York area, Grinwald assured that, slowly but surely and funding depending, the nonprofit’s biggest ambition continues to be creating a nationally recognized organization. For now, AOK will continue to impact students such as Durrua in New Jersey: “The fact that there’s people out there who do want to help you, who do want to give you a line to you know, performing arts is absolutely amazing. And I’m so proud of what they stand for,” Durrua said.
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