KENAI — Identity is important to Lester Nelson.
Not so much his identity, rather that of those he cares deeply about — Filipino youth.
While some of those children he interacts with can’t recite the alphabet, others are educated but trapped, the former Soldotna resident contends.
Trapped in an artist’s mind with few outlets for their creativity and fewer places and means to sharpen their skills. They’re not meeting their identity.
Some might think he should be spending his time and money teaching these youths to become doctors, or bankers or other well-esteemed professions.
Nelson, a 29-year-old graphic designer and educator, disagrees.
“I don’t think an artist should become a doctor or a professor or a lawyer because it is not who they are,” he said Friday while on a return trip home from Caloocan City, Philippines where he now lives full time. “I also think it would be really, really hard for me to start a law school or a medical school.”
The world needs art, creativity and people who are striving to be who and what they truly are, he thinks. It is a philosophy stamped all over the literature promoting the Ferdinand Center for the Creative — his brainchild.
It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young artists become accomplished designers, get jobs and escape the poverty that surrounds.
“What you do shouldn’t define who you are. Who you are should define what you do,” a promotional brochure reads.
Nelson, a 2001 Nikiski Middle-High School graduate, first visited the Metro Manila region of the Philippines in 2008. He was on a mission to make a documentary about a moral family’s plight after falling prey to the area’s sex industry. Filming was abandoned when those involved realized the family would ultimately suffer from its release.
That same day Nelson decided to start Ferdinand. Several of the youths he met preparing for the film were fascinated by his graphic design business. He sold the boom mics and steady cams purchased in pursuit of the film and put the money toward teaching students graphic design one at a time.
“I figured why stop there, I should teach more than two students,” he said.
Over the next several years, and after moving full time to Caloocan City in April, Nelson’s mission to educate grew into a full-scale movement as the Ferdinand idea grew.
In October, the school started accepting applications, receiving more than 500 in the first week alone.
But there is a problem.
Although he has the student interest, the land and the building designs, Nelson only has one-fourth of the $50,000 needed to build it.
Fundraising is frustrating, he said. He works hard to be heard and to hear a ‘Yes,’ among the sea of, ‘No.’
“I’ve learned that, even though this project is the center of my universe, I can’t expect it to be the center of everyone else’s universe,” he wrote in an email. “... I strongly believe that this project can get many people out of abject poverty, and can help spread good deeds further than may be immediately obvious.”
But there is hope for the center.
In a music video on the center’s website, Filipino youth dance to energetic music in brightly colored t-shirts for sale designed by Nelson’s student as a fundraiser. Some of those in the video are currently his students singing the catchy chorus “... baby’s got the power.”
But, one of them is also street child, he said.
Currently, when he is not working for free one-on-one with graphic design students in his apartment, he helps feed and educate those same street children.
Sometimes they’ll spread shaving cream on a table and trace the alphabet with their fingers, or sometimes just play a game to focus on their English.
When the center is eventually built, Nelson said students would “pay” their tuition by feeding street children and working on their elementary education -- reading, writing and math.
“I know there is going to be a lot of people in the community who aren’t interested in becoming graphic designers and I still want to help as many people as possible,” he said. “If I just limit myself to graphic designers that’s not that many people. That’s not a huge percentage of the population there. So, I wanted to use our facilities to help as many people as we could.”
Nelson started his own graphic design firm in 1998 and went to an art college in Portland for just a semester before returning to Alaska. However, after working in the industry for a while, he didn’t feel like he had a purpose.
“I didn’t feel as needed as I do over there,” he said. “Here I just felt like I was going through the motions and doing the same thing over and over again.”
He’s trying to do good with what he knows and hoping the message spreads, instead of trying to tackle all the world’s problems at once.
Johnrei is one of his design students who had to drop out of college to care for his ill grandmother. He is a talented cartoonist and painter, Nelson said, but he lives about an hour away. Transportation is often difficult and the organization picks up the tab.
Once the facility is built, it will have space for similar students to stay, almost like dorms. Nelson hopes it can hold 15 students at a time for classes three times a week.
Other students who have applied to the center have stories similar to Johnrei’s — one previously attended a school that went bankrupt, several have had to drop their education to remain employed and many were never given the opportunity to go to college in the first place.
Where Nelson lives, he said, youths can’t get a job at McDonald’s without a college diploma. It’s an uphill battle, he said, but thankfully artists are judged more on their portfolio and less on their formal education -- and that’s where the center comes in.
“Hopefully in the future we will be able to branch out into other creative teachings,” he said. “My dream is that someday it could turn into something where we have more teachers and we can teach creative writing, film making, music and graphic design.”
“But that’s far down the road,” he said.
When Nelson was 12, his parents changed his life with a Christmas present — a Mac.
His own creativity was unleashed as he started designing websites and eventually worked into graphic design.
In high school he idolized Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, who he still cites as an influence on his work.
He teaches both of his current students on a Mac, but they start without the computer learning the basics of composition, sketching, logo design and others.
Although the fundraising has been hard and he’d like to get construction started in 2012, Nelson said he is continually motivated by the results of his work -- watching students grow and learn.
“Every time I know that I have made someone’s life better, it motivates you,” he said. “You have long stretches where by the end of the stretch you kind of start to feel like you are losing your motivation a bit, but then something happens and you realize you have helped someone a lot and it motivates you again.”
Whenever he steps out into the street, children swarm him, wanting to walk with him wherever he goes.
“I always forget that I’m white and I am like the whitest person in the country because I am probably one of the 10 whitest people in Alaska and Alaska is a pretty white state,” he joked. “Sometimes when I walk in front of the mirror I go, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m really, really white.’ I never think I stand out.”
Even though he is being benevolent, and cites his selfless parents as one of the main reasons he’d been so successful overseas, he doesn’t much like to talk about himself in that way.
“I think I am still just a normal person,” he said. “I think everybody wants to be someone that good things are said about them when they die, that’s something I’m thinking about.
“I want to be a good person.”
In the time he’s been overseas, he’s also learned about the things he can give up — material possessions he once thought were so important.
But, he maintains that if he listed those items out — his possessions, his wants, and needs — on a piece of paper, none of them would be as important as Ferdinand, he said.
“The Philippines is my home now,” he said. “That’s where I have decided to live, and yeah, it is impossible for me to ever be the same.”
Information from: Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com