Lafayette’s Peter Pan Foundation offers lessons in music, theater and youth empowerment

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Leslie Noel Hansen, left, leads a rehearsal with members of the Peter Pan Foundation on Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Lafayette, Calif. Hansen founded the nonprofit youth musical theater in 2007. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Leslie Noel Hansen was just 25 and flourishing amid the Bay Area’s music scene in 2006, teaching singing lessons, dreaming of Broadway and preparing to head to New York.

That all changed the day she learned that Steffen Ryge, one of the Lafayette teens Noel Hansen had taught, had died in a car accident. The Acalanes High senior had starred as Peter Pan in Noel Hansen’s original “Wish Upon a Star” musical, staged by local teens who donated the weekend’s proceeds, some $20,000, to Oakland’s UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

“It was a very whimsical, collaborative, fun project with me and a bunch of teens who wanted to do something special,” she says.

The troupe went on to perform the show for young patients at the hospital and had planned to stage another performance before Ryge left for college. That day never came.

At the time, Noel Hansen was set to play Christine in a touring production of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera,” after training with Franc D’Ambrosio, who played the Phantom in the Tony award-winning musical for more than six years. Booked to perform at Ryge’s memorial service and open for D’Ambrosio in a concert the same day, the distraught Noel Hansen realized she couldn’t leave this community.

So she launched the Peter Pan Foundation, which offers mentoring, performance and philanthropic opportunities and inspiration for young musicians and actors — a new generation of Peter Pans.

“There are people that need music for so much more than entertainment,” she says. “They need it for hope, health and joy. I want to show kids they can be world changers through their gifts.”

She’d seen the power of those hospital performances for the young patients, certainly, but also for the singers, who bring joy and hope, as they give back.

Noel Hansen had been a young patient herself, struck with the sudden paralysis of Guillain-Barre syndrome when she was 17. It was a scary time, she recalls. At one point, doctors expressed surprise that the paralysis hadn’t spread to her lungs, which had been strengthened by years of music training. They told her that singing had probably saved her life. The memory stayed with her: If singing had saved her life, then maybe it could help other young people in powerful ways too.

More than two decades later, musical kids of all ages still gather to rehearse, brainstorm and hang out at “The Treehouse,” the nonprofit’s Lafayette home. They give annual benefit performances of “Wish Upon a Star,” volunteer as hospital visitors and performers, sing in monthly open mic cabaret nights and participate in the teen leadership council dubbed the Bay Area Magic Makers.

Members of the Peter Pan Foundation take part in a rehearsal on Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Lafayette, Calif. The nonprofit youth musical theater started in 2007. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The program’s magic has helped a new generation of performers and leaders take flight — literally and figuratively. Take William Foon, an Orinda 12 year old, who is performing as young John Darling in the Broadway touring production of “Peter Pan,” which lands at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts in June.

The Peter Pan Foundation helped familiarize William with the audition process, says his mother, Jiin Son, while providing a theater atmosphere that is inclusive rather than competitive. William has worked with a wide array of East Bay theater, dance and music programs, she says, but as he performs at venues around the country, it’s the foundation’s cabaret nights that he misses most.

Leslie Noel Hansen, left, leads a rehearsal with members of the Peter Pan Foundation on Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Lafayette, Calif. Hansen founded the nonprofit youth musical theater in 2007. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The organization’s inclusivity is apparent in its casting of performers of different ages, ethnicities, gender identities and abilities, including Noelle Wilder, a deaf performer who provides American Sign Language interpretations for foundation shows.

“I’ve been placed in unique spotlight positions, where I can highlight the beauty of American Sign Language alongside the beautiful voices of the Peter Pan Foundation,” Wilder says. “I’ve been able to be different Disney characters while still including and acknowledging my deaf identity.”

And for Justin Campo, who joined the foundation a decade ago, when the then-12 year old’s cancer went into remission, the foundation has offered a way to share the joy that others brought him during his hospital stays.

“I’d been visited by characters and got to see shows in the hospital,” he says, “and only a few years later, I was going — dressed as princes, Peter Pan and superheroes.”

Leslie Noel Hansen, left, leads a rehearsal with members of the Peter Pan Foundation on Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Lafayette, Calif. Hansen founded the nonprofit youth musical theater in 2007. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Today, he uses the leadership and people skills he learned through the foundation at school, at work and in his relationships. What keeps him coming back even as an adult, he says, is that “we don’t just put on shows. It feels familial.”

Campo will play Peter Pan in this year’s “Wish Upon a Star” which hits the stage Memorial Day weekend with a music lineup that includes songs from Disney’s 2023 “Wish.”

“It’s an accumulation of every single Disney character and song you know and love,” Campo says. “It’s just a warm hug of a show.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.

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