Lesley Gore's last song, perhaps least well known, but most telling of her remarkable
spirit was a song she recorded with a group of Bronx kids whom she barely knew, but who will never forget her - because she was the person who heard them. The song is "Pull Your Pants Up" and the kids who wrote it are part of a mentoring program at Health People, a South Bronx community organization which has quite a mission. Called Kids-Helping-Kids, it is a mentoring program in which older kids with sick or missing parents are mentors for younger kids facing the same difficult situations.
About half the kids in Kids-Helping-Kids are in foster care or living with grandparents; their parents often have serious diseases from AIDS to cancer to addiction. And, they are in the South Bronx which means that, as much as these kids help others, few people help them. In New York City, even philanthropy is directed overwhelmingly to Manhattan and kids in poor areas of the "other boroughs" don't get the attention-- or the funding for youth programs that can make a real difference.
So these kids largely make their own activities and programs and part of that was to make up a rap song called "Pull Your Pants Up." When they asked me to listen to it, it was so charming, I wondered how I could help them. Like all kids with a song today, they were going to "put it on You Tube and get a million hits." I explained that first they needed to rehearse---which they understood---and then I had an idea. Through some friends, Lesley Gore had appeared at a small fund-raiser for our organization, Health People, for World AIDS Day. I held my breath and emailed ---just asking if she could help the kids rehearse.
She came right up to the Bronx and immediately understood how important this was----a group of kids with their song, with a wonderful spirit of their own, who never expected anyone to pay attention to them. She not only put them into rehearsal, but announced she was going to assure they could make a professional level recording and video. She enlisted Broadway director and choreographer Joey McKneely and she brought them into Nola, the storied 57th Street studio -- where artists from Sinatra to Streisand have recorded -- to record their iTunes song.
After the recording was done, we spent a day in St. Mary's Park, filming the video, with Joey McKneely having created a wonderful "storyline" --- in which every child appeared and looked charming---to go with the song. It is hard to imagine how much time Lesley and the others spent cutting the video to go with the music and, at the same, assure everybody was there and seen.
For the kids, this experience will be in their memory forever. It was amazing fun but also profoundly serious and focusing for them. Although they may not, at first, have known much, if anything, about Lesley's career, they certainly understood that here was someone who was a professional and who was treating them as professionals who had something to say in their own right. What they wanted to say through their song, with its pointed message of "Don't sag, saggin' ain't cool, sagging ain't right" and advice to "be proud of who you are and not what you're not...just stay in school, educate your mind, get good grades and you'll be fine" was for all kids to build a future, no matter how tough it seemed.
That someone like Lesley, an icon, came from another world to sing this message with them will not just stay in their memory, but be part of who they, themselves are forever. The notes and letters they wrote, after her death Monday, to send to her memorial show how seriously they valued her interest. "I'm at a loss of words with your unexpected passing," wrote Tarik Carr," who was the kids' lead rapper for Pull Your Pants Up. "Thank you for believing in us when nobody else would because you saw something in us." "It's very hard knowing that you passed because of all the good things you've done for us," wrote Ja-Quel McFadden, who, in the video, plays the young man who needs to pull up his pants. "It's very emotional because of all people, you chose to give us a chance."
Lesley's commitment to these South Bronx children should serve as an example to other celebrities or anyone who wants to get involved in causes bigger than themselves. There are plenty of organizations like Health People already out there doing good work to build communities, beginning with the youngest members. Follow Lesley's example and way -- just find something that people---or kids---in poor communities are already trying to do for themselves and then give your donation, whether it's yourself or your funds, to help them attain their dream.