The Story of the Peter Pan Foundation
By our Founder, Leslie Noel
Once upon a time, in 2006, I met a boy; a friend of one of my vocal students… his name was Steffen Ryge. He had attended an alumni concert I performed in at Acalanes High School, where he was finishing up his last year. He told me how much my performance had inspired him, and that he would love to get involved in my studio and performances, but felt that he was not much of singer… he was an actor. He announced his acting skills with contagious, boyish pride while standing with his hands triumphantly perched on his hips. He looked like Peter Pan; or at least, how I always believed Peter Pan looked…
I knew that very instant that he needed to be Peter in our upcoming magical benefit show! Only thing is… it hadn’t been written yet! I told him I would write him a show he could star in so that he could be involved. He would have a month to learn it. He asked me how I could trust that he was a good enough actor to carry off the entire show. My response? “Anyone who so obviously loves and believes in what they’re doing THAT much?… makes it easy to believe in them, too”. And Steffen was definitely easy to believe in.
So, that evening, I stayed up all night writing a show for our new Peter Pan… the brand new full-length Musical ‘Wish Upon A Star’. It was a huge benefit musical show to be put on by my students, to raise money for Children’s Hospital Oakland. And boy, did it! Nearly $20,000 was raised from that one show. We received letters upon letters of how wonderfully inspired others had been by Steffen’s performance, and by our magical new show.
We took a portion of our show to the hospital to perform for the children there, realizing that that if this show was supposed to be for those kids, we wanted them to be able to enjoy it! And they did. They loved it… you could see it in their faces. Steffen turned to me and thanked me with tears in his eyes… for this wonderful opportunity to be the best version of himself, and to get the chance to be someone special who inspired others and made them smile. I told him that being his director and friend had made me smile from the first day we met. Helping kids through the magic of music became our new love; we wanted to make every young patient in the hospital know that we were here for them… that they were loved. We planned to do a repeat of the show that summer.
Ten days before the show, Steffen was killed in a car accident. 18 years old, a brilliant and talented boy just months away from starting college and growing up to be that best version of himself that he so loved… It was devastating. We had lost our Peter Pan; our Stef, for good. Four days after his death, I was set to be singing in a national Broadway tour. I was the opening singer for my childhood hero, Franc D’Ambrosio, the world’s longest-running Phantom of the Opera. Now, I would be performing twice on that day; in Franc’s show in the evening, and in Steffen’s funeral that afternoon.
For Franc’s concert-an amazing performance opportunity which I shall remember always-I opened with the song which had once inspired Steffen on the night that we had met just 6 months prior. It was an honor to sing in such a prestigious show. However, I realized, that my greatest honor that day had been to perform at Steffen’s funeral. His parents spoke to me of the positive impact the ‘Peter Pan’ opportunity had made on his life in just the short time I had known him. To have gotten to witness his talent bloom, and his love to help others grow… and perhaps to have gotten to inspire each other to create something magical for audiences, the kids at CHO, and the community?… was the greatest honor.
That evening, after my day of overwhelming performances, it all became clear. As much as I had always dreamed of a Broadway life, a life on the stage… I knew that I wanted to use my talents in this new way; to help inspire others to use their talents to make positive changes in our community and in the world. And this was the birth of The Peter Pan Foundation, named appropriately to remember the inspiration himself; our beloved Peter Pan, Steffen Ryge.
The Peter Pan Foundation was founded to inspire children of all ages to find their inner talents and confidence; to help them to reach their personal potential and find the best versions of themselves, on and off the stage. They are instilled with confidence, develop strength of character and enhance creativity, all the while engaging in philanthropy. This enables them to have the strength to help others around them.
As cheesy as it sounds, I had a dream for a world where everyone has ‘happy thoughts’. Everyone wins. There is always a reason to keep going and keep smiling. Having nearly died in a hospital myself from a rare nerve disorder when I was 17, I know how those moments feel when you just don’t know if you can go on… but I also know the power of a smile; of a laugh; of a friend. I know the power of ‘yourself’. And our foundation helps to instill that power into every single performer, participant, and witness to our philanthropic magical endeavors.
Visit hospitals, kids with special needs, schools, other philanthropic organizations, individuals who just need a pick me up…
Produce sensory-friendly, ASL interpreted, and specialty audience geared shows, to provide theatre to ALL audiences.
Open our casting to ALL performers, regardless of race, ethnicity, appearance, age, gender, and skill level; providing the opportunity for EVERYONE to make a difference.
Raise money through musical fundraisers to donate to causes who are in need of financial support.
Partner with other amazing causes (currently, in 2018, the Make-A-Wish Foundation) to offer endless support to their needs.
Provide groups and assemblies to help teens with self esteem and the struggles of daily pressures, and to remind them of just how amazing they are. This includes our PPF BAMM Squad, an extraordinary think tank of teenagers who meet weekly to help run The PPF-because they can!
Encourage all we encounter to spread light to each other and to our world.
The PPF was created to help everyone find that power and strength within themselves, to teach them to use it for good, and to inspire them to make a difference.
My dream is for the sick, for the sad, for the lost, and for those in need… but it is truly for ALL of us. Because at the end of the day, we ALL need a happy place. Everyone, from patient to doctor, from those in need to those who give… everyone has the power to teach the world to fly!
The Foundation came to life on January 1st, 2007. Since then, we have proudly carried on the annual tradition of his show, “Wish Upon A Star”. Steffen was easy to believe in, because he believed in himself, and we know he will always be here with The PPF, believing in us.