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Paul Bertha: from bystander to ‘upstander’

Meet...Paul Bertha
Paul was hesitant about speaking up at first when his local, Indiana city council debated whether to demolish a historic local school. But then he realized it was his “duty”: If he didn’t speak up about the potential alternative uses for the school’s grand stage, who else would? He did, and the rest is history.

There was a time when Paul Bertha hesitated about speaking up, although no one in Elkhart, IN, would believe it now.

Neighborworks-image-266It was in 2004 that Bertha’s son, a community organizer at the time, prodded him into attending a city council meeting, where residents were planning to object to the demolition of an aging school two blocks from his home, Roosevelt Elementary. Paul obliged, and as he sat in the audience listening to the debate, he thought about the potential of the school’s gymnasium and stage. He had been in a repertory company when he was 18 in Flint, MI, and loved helping his aunt teach drama classes. Elkhart didn’t have a community theater, and the idea took hold that it would be a positive alternative activity for disadvantaged youth in South Central Elkhart.

“I had gone to the meeting in the spirit of just witnessing the discussion. I had no agenda in mind,” recalls Paul. “But no one else was talking about the possibilities of the stage, and a voice in my head said I should speak up. I was a little anxious about public speaking, though, so I held back. Finally, I realized that if I didn’t, no one else would and I’d lose the chance.”

Paul did, and in part due to his efforts, the school was saved that night. But it wasn’t until NeighborWorks member La Casa, Inc. acquired the property that Paul’s dream became reality. Because of Paul’s membership on the planning committee of the neighborhood association, LaCasa asked him and seven others to attend the 2008 NeighborWorks Community Leadership Institute in San Jose. La Casa was developing the school into affordable apartments, but had preserved the gym, stage and meeting rooms. As the group talked about what to do with the community space, Paul raised the idea of an arts space once again. And that’s how the Historic Roosevelt Summer Academy, a free program for under-served youth, was born. Paul is, of course, the drama teacher and coach.

Today, the academy has been running six years and about 600 children and youth have participated. Paul has personally influenced many of them – for the better. Seven-year-old Hazel is a case in point.  She and her brothers were abandoned in the back of a U-Haul trailer and were placed with foster parents. Hazel didn’t speak much because she has a speech impediment, and was never chosen in class for anything that involved speaking. So when Paul put on a production of Charlotte’s Web, he gave her a few lines.

“I wasn’t sure if she’d actually say them. But wow, she sure did. She shined brighter than anyone else. My most rewarding experience is when the kid most likely to fail succeeds.”

2014 Dorothy Richardson Award Winners

Jason Amboo: Never too Young to be a Leader
Sharon Bagley: Turning Tragedy into Strength
Fred Fife: Heart of the Community
Kenneth Grubbs: Teaching by Example
Chip Rogalinski: Responding to the ‘Call’
Marcy Tanger: A One-Person Green ‘Multiplier’
Gloria Zamudio: Be the Leader You Need

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