I first met Brenda Blackman in a serendipitous encounter in a gymnasium locker room on Washburn University’s campus in 2008. I overheard her talking about the dearth of stage managers in the theatre department at that time, and from the anonymity of a toilet stall I offered into the room, “I’m a stage manager.” Without skipping a beat, she replied to this faceless candidate, “Good. Go to the office in Garvey and tell them you want to take a show this season.” So I did. As the two resident stage managers, we quickly realized we had two options moving forward: compete for shows, or collaborate to help each other and the department. We chose the latter. Thus began my term with the WU theatre department, but more importantly, my friendship with this amazing woman.
Since the moment I met her, I have never known Brenda to be involved in fewer than ten projects at any given time. She graduated from Washburn with two degrees, in English Education and Theatre, and completed her Masters in Adaptive Special Education in 2015. She has taught classes at the Sheffel Theatre Clinic as well as Topeka Civic Theatre’s summer tech camps, crewed and stage managed productions at TCT and Ad Astra Theatre Ensemble, recruited and organized volunteers for Helen Hocker Theater’s Project Terror: A Haunted House Experience since its inception, and volunteered with Silverbackks’ Silver Sparkle and Uplifting Women Expo. She is currently production manager for Roaring Rat Films, personnel manager for Jinxed Productions, the stage manager for TCT’s production of “The Fox on the Fairway,” and the newest member of Ronald McDonald House’s Red Shoe Crew.
This is all on top of her day job, which is awe-inspiring in its own right. She designed and runs a program for students with EBD – emotional and behavioral disorders – at Robinson Middle School in USD 501. It began as a liaison program with Capital City School to try to help keep students in their home schools and limit the number of referrals to a specialized program such as Cap City, and grew into a full time position. Every day, Brenda faces the challenges of poverty, disability, and instability with her students, dedicating herself to empowering them and providing them with the academic, emotional, and material support they require to continue their education in a conventional learning environment alongside their peers. In addition to her enormous contributions throughout the school day, she works after hours running a performing arts group for the after school program as a part of the 21st Century Learning Grant. She’s secretary for NEA-Topeka, an Association Representative for her building, and a KNEA State Representative Assembly delegate. She is also on the school improvement team, helps with the Harvesters BackSnack program, serves on the district mental health committee, and is a certified Mandt System trainer. She started to explain to me about the Tier-II intervention work she does, but frankly, I became concerned about our word count.
She has always been impressive, but the most recent endeavor she’s embarked on is the reason this story needed to be told. In 2017, local artist and performer David Scroggins was met with sudden medical challenges that imposed daunting financial burdens at a time when he was unable to work. Members of the NE KS theatre community came together and determined to hold a fundraiser to help offset those costs. Sally Glassman conceived of the idea, gathered community members Kelly and Sheri Rippel, Karen Bartlett, and Brenda, and together they formed the group that would become Artist’s Wellness Endowment. Brenda is now the Board President of Artist’s Wellness Endowment, which attained 501c3 nonprofit status in January 2017. As part of their efforts for Scroggins, AWE organized the Scroggie and Friends benefit concert with silent auction at the Doug P. Goheen Theatre at Topeka West High School, partnered with Glory Days Pizza, and held Karaoke for a Cause at the Legendary Boobie Trap Bar and the Brass Rail, raising thousands of tax-exempt dollars to go directly toward Scroggins’ exorbitant medical costs.
Artist’s Wellness Endowment opened its nonprofit status to singer and actor (and my favorite Jean Valjean portrayer) Daniel Lassley in 2018, when he incurred unexpected medical expenses following a rare spinal stroke in one of his cervical vertebrae. As of January of this year, AWE has opened its Square Store to raise funds for local artist Wendy Long following her cancer diagnosis, and is in the process of organizing an art auction fundraiser for her at Norseman Brewing Company in NOTO on March 9. AWE will also be working with local artist Skye Reid to organize a cabaret fundraiser for Wendy in Lawrence in late March.
Brenda executes this impressive resume without batting an eye. “I never thought I’d be running a nonprofit that changes people’s lives,” she reflected recently. “I don’t really do anything, you know? I just do the paperwork; it’s the people in the community, the ones who share and donate and give so much, they’re the ones that really make it happen.” This humility is characteristic of Brenda, and, I would posit, the source of the strength that enables her to accomplish so much on behalf of others.
It’s easy to see Brenda as a force of nature, a powerful persona influencing organizations throughout the community. But power and service are often indistinguishable to the untrained eye, and this woman is an inspiring example of a life of service, dedicating her inexplicably inexhaustible energy to improving the lives of the people around her.