Fassil Gabremariam came to America with an explorer's heart, a passion for education and a love of children.
When he first arrived in New York City from Ethiopia in the 1970s, his fellow Ethiopia natives surprised him by saying they had not ventured outside the city. They hadn't even crossed the Hudson River.
Gabremariam longed to learn more about the United States. Eventually, he ended up studying at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, before going on to the University of Chicago.
Today, he longs to help local kids go beyond their natural boundaries and think globally. The former southeastern chief financial officer for GTE (which is now Verizon), Gabremariam formed the U.S.-Africa Free Enterprise Education Foundation in Tampa in 1997. The initial goal involved creating a curriculum to help students learn more about the world, especially Africa.
The mission remains the same today, but the nonprofit group has found and funded new ways to help students. On Thursday, it holds a fundraiser to help sustain and expand those efforts. The "Step Into Summer Soiree" begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club.
"We're committed to expanding the scope and the empowerment of kids," Gabremariam said. "The world is getting much smaller and it's going to be more competitive, much more intense. You have to start working and getting used to expanded horizons."
The Prodigy program stands as one of the group's primary focuses for students age 7-17. The year-round, after-school and summer cultural arts initiative integrates leadership training with dancing, photography and other fine and performing arts.
Students from Academy Prep Center of Tampa are among those involved with Prodigy. Academy's Sharon Joller credits Prodigy for helping their students take a broader look at life.
Gabremariam said he also has seen a noticeable difference.
"They actually find out things about themselves," Gabremariam said. "You can look at these kids getting so excited, their eyes light up.
"Prodigy may seem simple, but it's profound in terms of helping our youth."
Folks who attend the soiree will get a firsthand look at Prodigy's impact. Students from Academy will provide musical entertainment, and guests will view art created by the participants and meet some of the Prodigy youth.
Not only will proceeds help Prodigy, but Gabremariam hopes to create other youth programs that will equip them with the tools to deal in business on an international level. He believes business has a responsibility to help the community's future leaders and consumers.
"I think it's almost a gift that we have an opportunity to give those values and resources and reach out in a way that impacts the next generation," Gabremariam said. "That was my dream when I started."
Like Gabremariam, I'm convinced an emphasis on arts can reap benefits and promote critical and analytical thinking. Hopefully, Prodigy will keep those skills from becoming a lost art.
That's all I'm saying.