Step Up Wilmington

BY Emily Colin

Start with two unwavering philanthropists who share a strong social conscience blend them with a devoted team of advocates for victimized children educators social workers and university development specialists stir in a seasoned radio and television personality an internationally recognized media production team and a cadre of interns spearheaded by a UNCW freshman who’s been passionate about film since the age of 5. That’s the recipe for Step Up a community activist group dedicated to raising awareness about important social issues committed to shining a spotlight on local nonprofits and keen on motivating New Hanover County’s citizens to step up to the plate.

Lesser men than Mark Griffis and Dave Robertson might be tempted to rest on their philanthropic laurels. Their $1 million gift to the University of North Carolina Wilmington established more than 20 simultaneous scholarships and is the single largest gift of its kind that the university has ever received. Griffis’ and Robertson’s contributions to the university don’t stop there: They also started a catastrophe relief fund established three one-time awards and presented a $100 000 challenge gift intended to spark contributions to UNCW’s Alumni Association scholarship program. Their generosity extends to the Coastal AIDS Resource Center (C.A.R.E.) the DREAMS Center for Arts Education the Cameron Art Museum the Children’s Museum the New Hanover County Arboretum the Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center Hospice of the Lower Cape Fear Communities in Schools of New Hanover County … and the list goes on.

Though Robertson and Griffis have consistently demonstrated their commitment to education underprivileged children and health — they wanted to do more. One day Robertson says he and Griffis contemplated how they might best leverage their contributions to the community: “We were involved philanthropically but how could we create an opportunity bigger than just giving money? How could we help nonprofits where they most need it?”

Enter Maryann Adkins child victim advocate in district attorney Ben David’s office. Griffis says one day Maryann was holding a luncheon for advocates for abused children and “Dave and I were sponsors so we were there. And that’s how we got involved in child abuse prevention.”

Soon after the lunch Griffis and Robertson assembled a crackerjack team dedicated to child abuse prevention. The Step Up Task Force included Maryann Adkins; Lisa Brewster director of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students federal initiative; police department social worker Melissa Budd; behavioral specialist Holly Sellers; Pat Jessup Child Protective Services manager; Stephanie Davis development director/Special Projects at UNCW; Stephanie Kraybill the president of the New Hanover County Council of PTAs; and Kitty Kinnin a radio and television personality who will soon be bringing Step Up to the small screen.

Formerly of WRDU in Raleigh and WWAY Kinnin met Griffis and Robertson at a UNCW function. When the two offered her the opportunity to host Step Up Wilmington a new television series dedicated to exploring social justice issues and increasing nonprofits’ visibility she jumped at the chance to combine her on-air talents with the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

Set to air on WILM on November 3 the first segment of Step Up Wilmington will be an hour-long show dedicated to exploring issues of racism and diversity. The segment will feature Timothy Tyson author of Blood Done Sign My Name as well as locals Betty Cameron Bertha Todd district attorney Ben David Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and other folks who have an interesting perspective on racism and diversity in Wilmington. This is an ambitious project in itself but Griffis and Robertson plan to take it one step further: They’ll screen the completed special for an audience of 1 000 community leaders at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium and then facilitate a live forum between audience members and the individuals featured in the segment itself. The discussion will be filmed edited and will air in December as the second installment of Step Up’s diversity series. The Step Up Task Force hopes to have the two specials simulcast on as many channels as possible.

Starting in January Step Up Wilmington will air weekly on WILM for half an hour each Saturday at noon. The production team has big plans for the remainder of the 16-week series; UNCW intends to bring in five of the world’s top speakers and lecturers on the Holocaust in partnership with the Cameron Art Museum and Step Up will dedicate at least one show to that. Once per month the show will focus on events and activities at UNCW. Each show will feature a community calendar with shots of nonprofit events around town. In addition every week Step Up will give $1 000 away to an innovative program in New Hanover County and announce the winners on air. Shows will feature nonprofits around town as well as pressing issues such as gang violence and child abuse.

UNCW freshman Brooks Venters who will be leading a team of interns dedicated to learning how to film edit and produce the show is enthusiastic about what’s in store. Venters who received a $10 000 scholarship to UNCW from Griffis and Robertson has been making films since he was in elementary school. He comes by his talent naturally; his grandfather Carl Venters was Kitty Kinnin’s mentor and has both managed and owned television and radio stations throughout the Carolinas.

“Wilmington has a rich cultural history but they don’t teach anything about the race riots in school ” says Venters who attended New Hanover High School. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to find out about and the only way I can do it is with a camera. I want to learn more about Wilmington as a community and express things that people won’t generally see.”

He’ll certainly have that opportunity. Venters and his fellow interns drawn from both UNCW and Cape Fear Community College will be mentored by the incomparable media production team at DV3
( Larry Olson along with his children Obin Japhia and Amariah run this Wilmington-based production company that handles everything from interactive Web sites to sales DVDs to documentary films. Each member of the team has a specialty: Amariah 21 does animation and visual effects; Japhia 25 handles Flash and programming behind the scenes; and Obin 27 is the man behind the camera — he produces edits shoots and along with Amariah co-directs. Larry produces writes and handles the business side of DV3.

Their collective energies have paid off. Obin and Amariah’s venture MobiJokes (high quality comedic shorts; was recently nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Original Comedy for Broadband category. The company’s commercial work achieved finalist status at Cannes and their First Internet Fire ( produced for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival garnered the One Show Interactive Bronze Award. DV3 came on board because Griffis wanted “a high-level production ” says Obin Olson.

“We’ll be producing the show and overseeing the final product. We hope to make it into a nationally syndicated show ” Obin says. “It’s a great cause and it’s wonderful that they’ll be able to do something like this. I think it has national potential.”

Brooks Venters is thrilled to have an opportunity to study under the team at DV3. “To be able to work for them to get to know them as an independent production company is invaluable ” he says.

In addition to providing hands-on educational experiences for students from Cape Fear and UNCW Step Up Wilmington will offer opportunities for teens to submit their own films on what affects youth. All commercials that air during the show will be dedicated to local nonprofits or to socially relevant causes. Each nonprofit will receive a copy of its commercial for fundraising and promotional purposes.

“We’re going to do real edgy commercials like a rape crisis awareness piece featuring Dora Corbett ” says Kinnin referring to the 80-year-old Pender County woman who was raped more than two years ago. Griffis adds “We’re going to go to her trailer take the same path to the house that the rapist did.” Each program will also include a piece called Kitty’s Litter a call for community accountability.

Step Up also plans to implement “coffee break” and “lunch break” programs that will empower local residents to become philanthropists themselves. “Once a month that $4 that you spend on coffee or that $10 you spend on lunch — make your own coffee bring a bag lunch and whatever you would have spent donate that to the charity of your choice ” says Griffis. Individuals will be able to link to their favorite nonprofits and donate via the organization’s Web site projected to be up and running in October 2007.

Not only are Griffis and Robertson funding the entire enterprise they are continuing to organize events with the help of the Step Up Task Force. This year they held a luncheon for principals and assistant principals in New Hanover County focusing on child abuse reporting and Internet safety. In September 2007 they plan to hold the same luncheon for the New Hanover County executive board of PTAs.

“Twenty-five percent of New Hanover County residents are currently or have been abused ” says Griffis a sexual abuse survivor himself. “That’s a scary statistic.”

Robertson concurs. “The problem with abuse and rape is that the victims tend to think that they’re the only ones and the general public thinks there’s a lifestyle choice or other reason why victims were abused ” he says. “It’s the talking about it that turns the light into the dark places and prevents it from happening again.”