Leslie Noel's Peter Pan Foundation is the reason hundreds of young, East Bay theater artists do not have to wish upon a star to realize their dreams.
The nonprofit charitable organization, founded by singer-songwriter Noel, sails like a flagship of philanthropy through musical performances and an ever-expanding list of generous acts all designed to benefit patients at Children's Hospital Oakland and others in East Bay communities.
In a culture of "take," the foundation gives.
In the past four years, it has donated close to $100,000 and countless hours of community service to the hospital. More than 200 actors, singers and dancers age 5-25 have participated in making the lives of terminally or critically ill children feel better -- even if only for one hour.
Miles Inserra, the president of Peter Pan Foundation's Bay Area Magic Makers squad, a council of teens empowered to plan and execute outreach activities beyond the three annual theater productions, recalls St. Patrick's Day 2012 at Children's Hospital.
"It was amazing and inspiring to see those kids, some of them terminally ill, smile so much, laugh all day, and not want us to leave the hospital. By the end, I didn't even want to leave the hospital! It was a truly powerful day."
The Magic Makers squad has also distributed sandwiches to the homeless in area parks, replaced flower boxes at an elementary school, sang at a nursery for battered children, and sponsored arts
Noel's story as the founder of the organization has been presented -- in this newspaper as a subject of Hometown Heroes, and throughout the theater community by word-of-mouth -- as a near-legendary tale of suffering.
Accidental injuries, battles with Guillain-Barre syndrome (a nervous system disorder that nearly left her paralyzed), and the tragic loss of one student, Steffen Ryge, plot a course for disaster and depression. But Noel, perched on the cusp of the foundation's sixth annual Wish Upon a Star production speaks as if riding on the wings of an angel.
"My health is fantastic, I own a studio in Lafayette where I teach singing, I'm running the foundation and I'm taking time to learn photography," she says.
Although she's more inclined to save than to rejuvenate, Noel has learned to take time for herself and to rely on a supportive theater and philanthropic community.
Which is a good thing, because this year, the Peter Pan Foundation is offering eight different casts, dozens of new songs and mini-matinees aimed at the youngest audiences and performers -- there's a 5-year-old Tinkerbell making her debut -- at their annual Memorial Day Weekend performances.
Noel is also geared to raise $50,000 for Children's Hospital: topping last year's total by $20,000 in honor of their fifth fundraising season.
"I have a lot of patience and love," Noel says, explaining how she rehearses eight casts. She credits John and Chris Marshall, two veteran theater professionals, for their help and adds, "We manage it through experience."
Ryge, the Acalanes High School student who inspired Noel to create the Peter Pan Foundation, was the first of many children for whom a moment on stage, when done in service of a peer, gains invaluable significance.
"I have learned about the world and how willing people are to use their talents and give their time when the cause is noble and dear to their hearts," writes Nicholas Tarabini, who plays Peter Pan in this year's performances. "I've learned what it takes to be the best possible version of myself; because of theater, the Peter Pan Foundation, and because of Leslie Noel."
Audrey Vogel, 18, is grateful for the chance to experience diverse attitudes and working styles without fear or judgment.
"Young adults are provided a chance to become role models as they demonstrate their healthy lifestyle choices and incredible talents. Two things I have learned from acting are to have an open mind and to give your best, 100 percent of the time."
Inserra also mentions acceptance and believes he is a "much better person" due to the foundation's cross-blend of participants from a range of ethnic, racial and socioeconomic orientations.
Noel, who insists her learning is more a reiteration than a new lesson, says, "I've always known kids are capable of great things, but each year, it gets stronger. These kids all have something to teach. I learn these kids are leaders."
Until 2012, only the Magic Makers squad had one-on-one interactions with the children at Children's Hospital. This year, due to an added hospital liaison, all foundation members will visit patients directly. The expansion has energized the kids and filled Noel with pride.
"They're building more than confidence in themselves as performers," she suggests. "They're building confidence in their ability to give to others."
What: "Wish Upon a Star" musical presented by Peter Pan Foundation as fundraiser for Children's Hospital Oakland
When: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 26-28; also 11 a.m. May 27-28 (mini-matinees for youngest theatergoers and parents featuring junior performers)
Where: Diablo Valley College Performing Arts Center, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill
Cost: $25 adults; $12 for 18 and younger