Excite All Stars
“We provide a safe place for kids to explore their gifts,” stated Gerald Williams. “We help them find their own landing place.”
Williams is the co-founder and CEO of Excite All Stars, which offers a variety of youth programs with an underlying emphasis on leadership and careers. His co-founder and wife, Penny Williams, serves as the organization’s COO.
Excite programs are both widely varied and eclectic. Main areas of focus are academics, the arts and athletics, along with financial literacy, entrepreneurship and leadership development. First begun as a summer camp after Hurricane Katrina, the programs are offered year-round, both in and after school. Participants range from elementary through high school ages.
A look at the offerings inside each major Excite category reveals both the diversity and the approach the organization takes. Within academics, reading and STEM are priorities. The latter includes robotics, coding and aviation, incorporating everything from drones to flight simulators. The arts category ranges from visual and music to culinary and theater.
The widest variety can be found in the sports programs, which include tennis, lacrosse, archery, swimming and karate, among others. And Excite hopes to add sailing and fencing to the mix soon.
“We want to deal with the fear of trying anything new,” explained Gerald Williams. “We want to open doors for them to explore, so that their world becomes bigger, they develop new networks, new pathways they can go down.”
“Sports like tennis, you can play that your entire life, and there are so many scholarships available,” added Penny Williams. “It’s all part of our focus on employability, self-care, healing and health.”
This approach of developing the whole individual while also channeling that development in ways that will bring longer-term benefits lies at the heart of Excite’s work. “We want to start preparing the kids for the future at a younger age,” stated Gerald Williams.
Undergirding all of this is leadership training. Excite provides an eight-week program for the older participants that includes a teaching curriculum and dual mentorship tracks: participants mentor younger kids in the programs, while being connected to college student mentors through Tulane University.
Both Williams are New Orleans natives, but both left after college. Gerald was one of three students that integrated the Isadore Newman School in 1968, then earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt University. The couple lived in Atlanta for fifteen years, but returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“We wanted to help with the recovery,” recounted Gerald, “help that next generation, provide a safe place for the kids while the families were rebuilding.”
This led to establishing a summer camp, which hosted 25 kids in its first year. But the couple realized quickly that more needed to be done.
“I got the best of everything growing up, and I didn’t realize all kids didn’t have that until I got older,” Gerald recalled. “It motivated me to make sure all kids had this opportunity.”
Fifteen years later, Excite has served some 6500 families and provides about 50,000 hours of programming per year. The organization anticipates reaching 1000 participants in 2022.
This growth is abetted by the opening of a new facility in New Orleans East at the beginning of the year, the Excite All Star Innovation Center. The 5000 square feet of indoor space includes a STEM lab, an arts center, a robotics clinic, and additional classrooms. Outdoors are playing fields and other learning areas.
Most of Excite’s programs are free to the participants, though there is a fee for the summer camp. Yet even that is frequently offset by scholarships. Funding comes from local foundations such as United Way and Baptist Community Ministries, along with a variety of corporate sponsorships.
One high-profile supporter is Jrue Holiday, the former Pelicans player. The Jrue and Lauren Holiday Fund has backed several local organizations, and the Innovation Center will host a reunion of those groups this summer. This will tie in with the annual Excite Wacky Olympics, with teams of camp participants assigned a specific country, about whose history and culture they learn. Holiday will host the Opening Ceremonies for this summer’s competition.
The success of Excite’s programming is exemplified by the most recent cohort of Senior Ambassadors, a select group of students who represent the organization at community events. They get a stipend for this work, and get entrepreneurial experience by bringing a 360-degree photo booth to the events, with proceeds going towards college scholarships. Of the most recent Ambassadors group, all seven have been accepted to college and have been awarded a collective $900,000 in scholarships.
Recognizing that their participants’ families also need support, Excite provides resources ranging from health and safety information to parenting guides, from financial literacy references to college scholarships access. Families mostly connect with the programs via word of mouth; there is usually a waiting list to get involved.
Despite the outstanding track record, international acclaim and support from some of the highest-profile individuals and corporations, the Williams remain humbled by their success and focused on the purpose. “We’re honored to have been able to sustain to this point,” said Gerald. “We are developing young leaders who will change the world.”