Henderson State University celebrated its Founder’s Day earlier this month by inducting Thea Foundation Executive Director Paul Leopoulos, along with two other Henderson graduates, into the Henderson Academy of Scholars during an academic convocation.
The Henderson Academy of Scholars is comprised of Henderson graduates who have gained distinction in their professional fields.
Leopoulos also received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Henderson State University on Oct. 12. The Henderson Academy and Distinguished Alumni honors are preceded by Leopoulos’s Arts in Education Governor’s Arts Award announced by the Arkansas Arts Council earlier this year.
Paul David Leopoulos is co-founder and executive director of the Thea Foundation in North Little Rock, named in honor of his late daughter, Thea Kay Leopoulos. A native of Hot Springs, Leopoulos holds degrees in psychology and speech therapy, and a master’s degree in counseling from Henderson State University.
Leopoulos’s career path led him through college, counseling and speech therapy, as well as 30 years in computer technology before he and his wife, Linda, founded the Thea Foundation in late 2001. They have three children: Thaddeus, Nicholas, and Thea Kay, who was killed at the age of 17 in a car accident in 2001.
In the last 13 years, the Thea Foundation has seen tremendous growth in its programs designed to motivate children across Arkansas to believe in themselves through experience in the visual arts, music, performing arts, as well as other creative arts. More than $2 million has been awarded in scholarships to 218 high school seniors in Arkansas. More than $1 million in art supplies have been delivered to art teachers in 450 public schools around the state.
The foundation’s newest advocacy, the Arkansas A+ Schools teaching model, has been transforming schools across the state since 2009 and promises to become an accepted model statewide.
Besides receiving the honor from Henderson, Leopoulos recently spoke to a group of students of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts during an assembly at the Hot Springs School.
"Don’t let them take away the music that you’re made of, " Leopoulos said.
He offered that advice to the students.
"Be who you are. Gravitate toward the things you love. Don’t let anybody influence you from doing something that you are really passionate about. Even if you think you want to do something, try it. If it’s something in the arts, go for it," Leopoulus said.
Leopoulos was the guest speaker during a school assembly that focused on the arts. The Thea Foundation, based in North Little Rock, focuses on providing art-based learning and scholarship opportunities for Arkansas students.
Leopoulos focused on the role that visual and performance art can play in the education of young people. He said it doesn’t matter whether a student wants to become an artist, but rather what they can learn from the arts and how it can inspire their lives.
He used his own daughter, Thea, as an example. Her grade point average was low and she was mostly a C student. She often wasn’t very excited about going to school.
At the end of her sophomore year, she presented her parents with a schedule that was arts heavy — an art class, a drawing class, a dance class and a competitive speech class. She had taken only one art class during her school career, so the arts-heavy course load surprised her parents.
"I didn’t know then what I know now, but I thought, ‘Where are the real classes,’ " he said.
Also on her schedule was a trigonometry class. Leopoulos said Thea didn’t have a good track record with math, receiving C’s and D’s in previous classes, and he didn’t think she could do trigonometry. She made a deal with her parents that she would not have to take another math or science course after trigonometry.
During that year, Thea went through a transformation. In her drawing class, she finger painted a portrait of B.B. King that her teacher put on the wall in an area reserved for the best art. Leopoulos said he can now point to that day as the one that led to a transformation in Thea.
About midway through the first semester of her junior year, Leopoulos and his wife could see the changes in Thea. She was excited about going to school, and her grades drastically improved.
Then tragedy struck on May 28, 2001 — Memorial Day — when a drunk driver struck Thea’s vehicle on Interstate 630 in Little Rock. She did not survive the wreck.
The next day, Thea’s trigonometry teacher called Leopoulos to let him know that Thea had earned an A in trigonometry. Leopoulos said the news surprised him and his wife.
"We didn’t understand that. It’s not that we didn’t think she was smart, but that’s not the person who started the year," he said.
Thea’s principal later told them that she had all A’s and B’s, after not having more than one B at a time on her previous report cards. She had also signed up for calculus and physics for her senior year. What made the difference was her involvement in arts-related activities, he said.
Her transformation led the Leopouloses to start the Thea Foundation, which supports arts education in K-12 schools throughout Arkansas. The foundation also offers scholarships to seniors in visual arts, performing arts, film, fashion design, creative writing and spoken word.
Leopoulos, a Hot Springs native, shared several examples of scholarship winners’ art and performances. Many of the winners were students who may not have been involved in the arts initially but found their passion late in their high school careers.
However, he pointed out, students do not have to major in arts-based subjects in order to qualify for the foundation’s scholarships. Many go into education, mathematics, religion and other areas, Leopoulos said. The focus of the foundation and its scholarships are more broad, he said.
"This is not about art for art’s sake. This is about the arts enriching your life, helping you figure out who you are," Leopoulos said.
The assembly also featured a performance by the students in ASMSA’s Folk Music and Acoustics class.