The Interview Issue: Jodi Grinwald aims to change kids’ lives through performing arts

By Meg Fry
Barnegat | Dec 17, 2018 at 6:00 am
From our print edition

Jodi Grinwald said it was her father that instilled in her daughters a love for the performing arts. 

“He could not afford to take vocal lessons when he was a kid, but discovered he was an operatic tenor lyricist in his mid-30s,” Grinwald said. 

Now, Grinwald and her sister, Melissa Grinwald, have made it their mission to provide low-income students with the same access to the arts as their own families. 

“We created the Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation in honor of our father, who passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2015,” Jodi Grinwald, co-founder and CEO, said. “My dad always wanted to be able to do what we are doing now for these kids, so, hopefully, the stars will continue to align.” 

Based in Barnegat, the statewide foundation provides scholarships for lessons and necessary materials in the performing arts, including instruction in voice, dance, acting, instrumental music, audio-visual and film, to children between the ages of 7 and 18. 

Melissa and Jodi Grinwald of Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation at Downtown Dance Academy in Toms River

“Performing arts education provides children with the opportunity to find their own voice, increases self-esteem, gives them a sense of belonging and provides a creative outlet in which they can openly express themselves,” Grinwald said. “Not to mention that low-income students who are highly engaged in the arts are twice as likely to graduate college as their peers with no arts education.” 

ROI-NJ: You had worked as an executive in the nonprofit sector since 2005, with the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the Young Men’s Christian Association, as well as with the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce. What has your experience been in devoting yourself full-time to creating your own not-for-profit? 

Jodi Grinwald: It has been more difficult to create a local nonprofit foundation, as opposed to working for a national brand, but we have been very lucky and have such an appreciation for those who helped us start, including our attorney and accountant, who donated their time to help us create and solidify our mission and organization without incurring heavy costs. … We officially obtained our 501(c)(3) status in July 2017, and a few months afterwards, appeared on Fox 5 New York despite having no funding or applications. But, truly on a wing and a prayer, it all happened very quickly, and we were able to provide our first scholarship in November 2017. … I’ve never felt more fulfilled and I’ve never worked harder because the outcome thus far has been amazing. 

ROI: Tell us a bit about how the foundation works. 

JG: Through a combination of grant writing, corporate dollars and crowdfunding, we are able to provide scholarship recipients with lessons at local studios throughout the school year or during the summer, just like their peers whose families can afford to send them. We level the playing field while also planning several performances and events throughout the year to both showcase the students and grow awareness of our organization as well as that of our local studio partners. For example, we held our first annual scholarship showcase in June so that all of our community donors could follow their dollar to see the difference their contributions made. And, at every one of our events, kids are helping kids. For example, children who are interested in stage management can work with a mentor at one of our events, or volunteer to sell concessions or hand out programs. We also hold auditions for our performance group, comprised of kids whose families can fund their arts education, to go out and perform at other nonprofit and for-profit events to grow awareness of our foundation. This allows us to teach them about community service while providing them with the opportunity to do something that they love. 

ROI: How are scholarship recipients selected? 

JG: A family of four would need an income less than $50,500 to qualify. If a child is funded this year, they may continue to be funded next year as long as they continue to meet this financial criterion. Students also must submit an essay or video sharing what receiving this scholarship would mean to them before being paired with a participating local performing arts studio or community organization. 

ROI: How do you go about partnering with various performing arts organizations in the state? 

Testimony of a scholarship recipient of Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation

JG: We interview and visit with each of our studio partners to ensure they will be a good fit for our scholarship recipients. For example, if we have kids in their teens who have never taken dance lessons before, it may be difficult for them to join a clique of kids who have taken dance lessons together since they were 3 years old. We make sure that our studios work to be inclusive and that our students are brought in and made to feel like they are part of the family. We also work with our studio partners on pricing, as all of them tend to care about our kids more than anything else. … Lessons also can move with children, if necessary. For example, our very first scholarship recipient was taking classes in Toms River, and when she moved to Hamilton, we found her a studio in Mercer County to continue with her lessons. We also have worked with Court Appointed Special Advocates to ensure that scholarship recipients in foster care, as long as they have transportation, can still obtain lessons even if they are moved several times. … We are headquartered in Barnegat, but if a child from Bergen County were to apply, as long as we have the funding, we can find an arts organization local to them in which to take lessons. We currently work with 12 studios and also are pursuing partnerships with community theaters and performing arts centers, such as Count Basie Center for the Arts and Two River Theater in Red Bank. 

ROI: What goals do you have for the foundation in the near future? 

JG: Our goal for 2019 is to raise more than $250,000 in funding. I would love to say $1.5 million, but I know that we are small, and even when we bring in just $10,000, we can provide lessons for up to 10 children that year. We currently have 20 children in our program, and, by the end of next year, I want to have provided lessons for more than 100 students. … The challenge is there are so many worthy nonprofits, including in the performing arts, and everybody wants a piece of the pie. And, while our current advisory committee is comprised of eight wonderful members, not every passionate person is a fundraiser. So, we are looking for more young professionals with a passion for the arts to join our committee and help us grow.

ROI: What have you learned as a new arts-based nonprofit in New Jersey? 

JG: Most people say, ‘Oh, you just provide lessons in the performing arts?’ And I say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it is so much more than that.’ We have kids in our program who have tragically lost family members, and, in many cases, these weekly lessons are the only console they currently have. Or, we’ve talked to parents who said, ‘My daughter has been bullied, but these acting lessons have given her so much more self-confidence.’ We even met with parents of a nonverbal autistic student who never thought he’d be able to take lessons, but we successfully found him a studio and a drum teacher. Every parent of our scholarship recipients has talked about how these lessons have helped make their children happier and feel more connected to their communities.

Conversation starter

  • Name: Jodi Grinwald
  • Position: Co-founder and CEO
  • Organization: Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation 
  • Type of business: 501(c)(3) arts organization 
  • Location: Barnegat 
  • Date founded: July 2017
  • Financial goals: $250,000 in 2019
  • Website: Applaudourkids.org 
  • Phone number: 732-908-3616

The Interview Issue

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3