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Empowered Players gives children a place to grow artistically and personally through free theater classes

University alumna Jessica Harris founded and serves as the artistic director for the nonprofit organization

With Empowered Players, Harris said she seeks to provide access to the arts to children of all backgrounds and abilities by making the classes free. Courtesy Jessica Harris
With Empowered Players, Harris said she seeks to provide access to the arts to children of all backgrounds and abilities by making the classes free. Courtesy Jessica Harris

Eight years ago, Class of 2019 College and Education alumna Jessica Harris — at the time still in high school — founded Empowered Players, a nonprofit in nearby Fluvanna County that facilitates free arts and theater classes for children in grades K-12. Since then, Empowered Players has grown and continued to spread love for the arts and empower youth throughout Fluvanna County.

The organization — which is financed through donations, ticket sales and grants — offers a diverse variety of programs in the fall, spring and summer that are free of cost to its students. These programs teach a variety of skills and take on numerous forms, from hip-hop dance workshops to technical theater design classes. In the classes, children can not only hone specific artistic skills like improvisation and playwriting, but they also have the opportunity to be a part of a theater cast and put on a show. This semester, Empowered Players is putting on productions of “Into the Woods Jr.” and “Willy Wonka Jr.” 

According to Harris, the organization serves around 100 students per season, and each class contains up to 35 students.Classes usually take place once a week during the school year, while the summer camps meet daily for around a week. Harris says she organizes and leads each class with the help of several instructors and volunteers. 

While Harris is a Fluvanna County native, she also identifies Charlottesville and the University as her homes. Harris is a “double Hoo,” as she attended the College of Arts and Sciences for her undergraduate studies and the University’s School of Education and Human Development for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Heavily involved in the Drama department, Harris earned an interdisciplinary degree in Arts Administration, Youth and Social Innovation and Drama.

Growing up in Fluvanna, Harris said she had access to artistic outlets, but she realized that not every young person had the same access to those outlets as she did. With Empowered Players, Harris said she seeks to provide access to the arts to young people of all backgrounds and abilities by making the classes free.

“A lot of times programs are great, but they cost a lot of money, or it can be hard to afford the gas money to travel,” Harris said. “So by making it free, we hope to eliminate those barriers.”

By providing widely accessible classes to children in Fluvanna, Harris said she hopes that Empowered Players’ will help kids find their passion for the arts and that she thinks of her classes as spaces where young people can grow artistically and personally. 

“I think the arts are really important primarily because they [can] become students’ passions,” Harris said. “Anytime a student has something they are passionate about, it provides so much meaning and purpose and possibility in their lives.”

Harris added that Empowered Players’ classes not only cultivate students’ artistic skills, but also teach them useful life skills. She said that the act of reading a theater script can also improve a child’s reading proficiency. Even skills like empathy, collaboration and critical thinking are honed by acting in an ensemble cast, according to Harris.

“We think students have in themselves all the tools they need to thrive and to express themselves and be creative and be a part of a community,” Harris said. “What we hope to do is give them the platform and the space to hone those skills, to reach for the stars and to feel that they have a community behind them that’s supporting them while they blossom.”

Harris said that she has seen how theater and the arts can impact young people, especially when they experience it for the first time. She recalls a specific example where one student  expressed his newfound sense of belonging in theater. When the student was asked what he learned in class, he responded that he learned that anyone can do theater, including himself.

Empowered Players has a retention rate of 85 percent, reflecting its popularity among its students. Harris said many of the kids involved in the classes and camps have been around for several years and she has enjoyed seeing them return after their first experience. 

Overall, Harris says Empowered Players is a place for youth to explore their passions, experience the arts and feel supported by a community. For her, seeing the tangible differences she can make in a young person’s life through theater means the world.

“If there is even a handful of students who found something that spoke to them and touched their heart and touched their spirit in a way that is going to stay with them forever,” Harris said, “that is the best.”


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