Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 4, 2012

Leading by example

I don't recall exactly when I met Richard Pitts, but I know it was when oldest daughter Mariya, now almost 26, was a toddler.

But what I do know is Richard always makes me smile whenever I bump into him.

He seems to have that same effect on others as well.

I don't really see him that often, but when I do, he always greets me warmly, gives me a hug and asks about my family.

I've always been amazed too by his energy and enthusiasm for life, a trait that suits him well in his work with young people through his Wonder Workshop programs.

Pitts was recently honored for that work at a celebration of service and leadership sponsored by K-State's School of Leadership Studies. I attended the event because my family and I have been involved in some of his Wonder Workshop activities over the years.

According to the Wonder Workshop website (http://www.wonderworkshop.org/), its mission "is to promote education in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Its goal is to develop self-reliant children, families and community members. Its hands-on activities and exhibits instill a desire for life-long learning, recognizing our cultural diversity and fostering creative potential."

The workshop began in 1989 as a three-year pilot program intended to address the educational, recreational, and social needs of community youth and their families through after-school activities and interactive exhibits. In 1994, the Wonder Workshop Children's Museum on Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan opened, offering programs to the general public.

In the spring of 2000, youngest daughter Katie decided she'd like to try a few of the courses. She learned a bit about mask-making and cooking.

"I always had a really great time at the Wonder Workshop," she told me. "We would make crafts, or make corndogs and 'dirt with worms' - a messy chocolate dessert mixed with gummy worms - or play in one of the activity rooms."

When I visited the museum, I noticed that the kids were allowed to explore without being chastised for "getting dirty" or "making a mess." They loved it!

Katie also enjoyed the Underground Railroad field trip with Pitts in 2002 when she was in third grade. He has become the local expert on this section of the "railroad," one of the "spurs" by which escaped slaves could reach freedom in Canada before and during the Civil War.

Husband Art's mother Donna was in Kansas at the time and she, Art and I accompanied the children on the four-hour adventure. It was the first time Donna, then 92, had ridden a school bus - and the first time she had spent so much time talking to an African American.

One stop along the way was the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, a local landmark. Shipments of arms to Free-staters in Kansas prior to the Civil War were often opened by slavery supporters and any guns removed. The church was named for a shipment that arrived by packing rifles in the box bottom and placing Bibles over them.

Pitts asked the children to sit tightly together on the pews. He explained that when slaves were brought to America, they were chained together at the neck, wrists and ankles and were laid down side by side. He wanted the children "scrunched together" so they could feel a little what it was like.

But Pitts said he liked to highlight the positive things that have happened since slavery, so he asked the children what examples they could give of people of different races coming together. The children mentioned the Olympics, the civil rights movement and how people united after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Knowledge is power," Pitts said. Pointing to his head, he added, "If you put negative things in this computer here, negative things are going to come out. You need to read, understand, learn and broaden your horizons."

And Pitts is always doing just that. It seems he is constantly reinventing himself and coming up with different ways to share his knowledge and skills with others.

His most recent project is the "North Star Express." It housed in a bus he calls the "Classroom On Wheels" (COW). It is fitted with hands-on exhibits illustrating the path of African Americans from slavery to freedom. He drives the bus to area schools. He also parked it on the Kansas State University campus one day last fall so not-so-young people could see time lines, photos, maps and relics related to slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Drumming is another of Pitt's passions. In 2006, I asked him to take his skills to the Riley County schools so the students could learn about drumming traditions in Africa and other parts of the world. I've also attended his drumming workshops during Community Cultural Harmony Week, and his exuberance is absolutely contagious. Once he gets going, there's not a person around who isn't moving with the beat.

As the Leadership Studies event drew to a close, Pitts thanked his family and friends for their support ... and then pulled out a drum. Soon, everyone was bee-bopping around the room. They had come to honor him, but before it was over, he was giving more than he received.

Top: Pitts, rear, with Katie's third grade class visiting the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in 2002; bottom: Pitts leading the drumming at the end of the Leadership Studies event honoring him in March.

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