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Park Academy hosts annual auction featuring actor and activist LeVar Burton

COURTESY PHOTO - LeVar Burton speaking at the annual Park Academy gala and auction.   Parents and community members gathered at Lake Oswego's Park Academy Thursday, June 13 to raise money for the school to continue its powerful work in the world of education. Park Academy is a specialized private school dedicated to empowering students with diverse learning challenges to reach their highest potential of giftedness while excelling academically and becoming responsible citizens and community leaders.

The annual auction and gala always features a special guest related to the school's mission. This year, the Park Academy auction culminated with a visit from actor and activist LeVar Burton, known for his roles on "Roots," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the children's show "Reading Rainbow."

By the end of the night, the 260 attendees at the auction raised over $360,000 to continue Park Academy's work and provide scholarships for students in need.

Teachers at Park Academy said they enjoy the annual event because of the immense support the school receives from the community. "I love to see people outside of the school come and show support," said third grade teacher Chelsea Jepson. "Our community is so much wider than our students and parents. We have a really wide reach."

Fourth grade teacher Megan Holcomb concurred. "It's neat to see all the people who come to support us. A wide variety of people come because they care about what we're doing at Park," she said. "It's great

to know that I am a part of that."COURTESY PHOTO - LeVar Burton (left) accepts a gift of a student art project from Park Academy head of school Craig Lowery at the June 13 auction.

Before Burton took the stage, Park Academy's head of school Craig Lowery shared some insight into the importance of the evening's event.

"Today we honor these incredible kids and those that support them. The students are brilliant and inspirational human beings. Every person here tonight is a champion of support, sending a message that they are not alone. (It's our job) to plow through obstacles in their way so they can be the best human beings they can be," Lowery said. "With a room full of champions, it is within our power and ability to change the story of their education, change how they see the story of their lives. One in five learn in ways that make traditional learning difficult, if not impossible. We have the ability to make change tonight."

Three new scholarships were also announced on Thursday, named after three instrumental figures in Park Academy's success: the Piper Park Endowed Scholarship, in honor of the founder of Park Academy; the Gary Maffei Endowed Scholarship Fund; and the Bill Westphal Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Tuition to Park Academy runs about $20,000 a year, so scholarships like these make a big difference in allowing students without deep pockets to attend the school. "There are hundreds of kids whose lives are going to be changed by tonight, and they have no idea right now," Lowery said. "They haven't yet been accepted, or haven't yet received the scholarships we have funded tonight."COURTESY PHOTO - Jeff Mengis (left), member of the Park Academy board of directors, presents honorees with their namesake scholarships. Honorees: Gary Maffei, Piper Park, Bill Westphal. Far right: head of school Craig Lowery.

After hours of fundraising and socializing, Burton took the stage to close out the night. Burton may be more well known as an actor, but he is deeply committed to children's literacy. Together with his business partner, Mark Wolfe, Burton created "RRKidz" to offer a reimagined "Reading Rainbow" as a digital reading service with more than 500 children's fiction and non-fiction books, video field trips, and new content every week. Most recently, RRKidz launched "Reading Rainbow for Every Child, Everywhere," providing engaging supplemental learning content for teachers and students, especially classrooms in need.

Burton is also the author of the children's book, "The Rhino Who Swallowed A Storm," a powerful and uplifting story to help children cope with the difficulties of everyday life.

As he walked onstage, an audience member yelled "Reading Rainbow!" and Burton didn't think twice as he broke into the nostalgic theme song of the program. "Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high," he sang. "Take a look, it's in a book, Reading Rainbow!"

Burton then took a more serious tone. "I believe literacy is the birthright of every single one of us — no exceptions," he said. "It's hard to thrive without reading; you will not have reached your full potential. Literacy paves the way to lifelong learning."

Burton said that through his life he has learned that the most powerful combination of words in the English language are "What if." "The link between what we imagine and what we create is inextricable," he said. "That upon which we focus our imagination we tend to create in this world."

He then shared how he came to love stories: his mother, Erma Gene Christian. Because his mother was always reading — sometimes three books at a time — Burton came to think that reading is as important to the survival of humans as is breathing.

"I am the man that I am because of the woman that she was. She was a powerful human being, and she was determined that I would reach my full potential," Burton said. "She had hopes for me, and expectations. She taught me there are no limits to what I can accomplish in life, except for those I put on myself."

Burton also explained the importance of representation. "It was rare to see actors that looked like me on TV, and they were never leads," he said. "'Star Trek' was huge for me growing up. It told me: when the future came, there was a place for me. We are responsible for the stories we put out there with our very lives as the medium of communication."

For more information on Park Academy, visit

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