Lifting Literacy: Putting a 5-Year-Old Playwright in the Spotlight

Ford Burkhart, Chris Richards photo

Sharon O’Brien had a dream before landing in entrepreneurship classes at McGuire in 2004. She wanted to build on her degrees in theater education and cinematography.

“I didn’t want to let it go,” she says. “But how could I move this forward?” The McGuire Center showed her how: by starting a nonprofit business that would endure. 

“McGuire forced us to validate our reasons to go nonprofit and gave us experience in how to be businesslike, how to do a budget, with expenses and revenue.”

“I attribute my long-term success to that. I am growing it today because it started out with understanding the business model and how to make it all work.”

Twelve years later, her nonprofit, called Stories That Soar!, encourages the writing and staging of dramas at schools, with three employees and 25 or so paid actors, dancers, singers and musicians. She works with 13 local schools in six school districts. 

On stage, the professional actors give student writers a chance to see their stories as theater. With creative costumes — crowns, scepters, wands, a dog nose, a monkey mask — they perform stories as short as three sentences or up to two pages, written by children as young as 5 or 6, in any language. Some stories are the usual fairies and dragons, but some are about real life in a family. “One kid wrote about visiting his dad in jail,” O’Brien recalls. 

A show includes 20 to 25 stories, with funding of $5,000 and up. Most of that comes in from grants and donations, while schools kick in a “host fee” of about 30 percent to the partnership. 

Stories That Soar! was invited to merge in 2011 with four other local outfits to form Literacy Connects, where O’Brien remains on the management team.

To keep her entrepreneurial skills sharp, O’Brien entered the McGuire Center’s recent Social Impact Pitch Competition for early-stage social ventures with a pitch for a new nonprofit program: Stories that Soar! High, an addition to high school drama curriculum focused on community literacy, leadership and service learning. She won second place and $10,000.