Memphis native Amanda Cook discovered a deep love for creative writing, poetry, and theater early in life. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Millsaps College and a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon, she went on to a meaningful career in the world of nonprofits. But the arts always held a special place in her heart. Today, she combines the lessons she learned in the nonprofit sector with the transformative impact of creative arts education as the Executive Director of DeltaARTS.
How did your career path lead you to DeltaArts?
After I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, I worked for two nonprofits, doing program evaluations and grant writing for anti-bullying and school violence prevention initiatives. When I returned to Memphis, I ran a domestic violence shelter for Catholic Charities for a couple of years. Even there, I found a connection to the arts. Children would come in frightened and start crying because it was a communal living space, and we had to search their belongings. We brought out crayons and coloring books. It calmed everyone down — the mothers and the children.
I spent a decade at Ducks Unlimited, where I wrote grants for North American wetlands conservation programs. Then, I was at the Dorothy Day House in Memphis, where I successfully raised $1 million for their campaign for homeless services. It’s been a journey that’s brought me full circle, allowing me to bring all the skills I’ve acquired to DeltaARTS.
You were involved in theater as a child and young adult. What was it about the theater that engaged you on a personal level?
Growing up, my school had a limited focus on the arts, so I didn’t feel there were activities for me. I absolutely was not coordinated enough — or interested enough — in sports. I started auditioning for children’s theaters and later became involved in my high school’s theater program. Theater offered a unique platform to learn teamwork, improve public speaking skills, and manage time effectively — invaluable life skills. It also provided an outlet for expressing emotions and coping with life’s challenges.
Why do you think the arts are so impactful to the community?
The arts play a pivotal role in attracting talent and businesses to the Memphis area. Successful businesses aim to create vibrant communities that offer not only professional opportunities but also cultural experiences for their employees. The presence of art galleries, theaters, and creative spaces fosters personal connections, interactions, and community-building at a time when social media is taking us farther and farther away from direct interactions.
Additionally, the arts offer parents peace of mind, knowing their children have opportunities to explore their creativity. Our experience at DeltaARTS reflects this, with children enthusiastically embracing arts programs and parents reporting their children’s growing hunger for artistic activities.
What sets DeltaArts programs apart from others?
Our unwavering commitment to educational quality and community engagement. For all the programs we offer in schools, we offer a substantial classroom presence, typically spanning five to seven sessions. We bring certified teachers and expert teaching artists, ensuring the highest educational standards. Additionally, we make sure that every child leaves the program with a book, connecting the artistic experience to reading and learning. Our programs cover diverse themes, from moon missions to wetlands, and provide age-appropriate books, worksheets, and writing journals for students to take home. We want children to continue learning and exploring their creative journey long after the program ends.
Can you tell us more about the Respect Program?
The Respect Program focuses on social-emotional learning and literacy, targeting children from pre-K through 6th grade. Each week, we delve into one of the seven letters in “respect,” covering themes such as “reach for your dreams.” Through lessons, worksheets, poems, and art projects, we help children explore their aspirations and introduce new vocabulary while teaching conflict resolution and coping tools. Our goal is to equip students with essential skills while igniting their passion for learning through creativity.
What is the greatest reward of your job?
Witnessing the spark of excitement in children’s faces as they engage with poems, stories, and creative activities is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Many children in our theater program come to us with various challenges, and it’s remarkable to see their transformation. As their confidence grows, they find a sense of belonging, discover like-minded peers, and build a supportive community. This sense of fulfillment makes every challenge in my role worthwhile.
What is your biggest challenge?
The most significant challenge we have is raising the necessary funds to expand our programs and serve more children. While we have many innovative ideas and collaborative efforts with local partners, finding new funders remains a continuous effort. We aim to reach even more schools in Memphis and the surrounding region, providing educators with the resources they need and children with enriching arts experiences.
What are your plans for the future of DeltaARTS?
By the end of our current fiscal year, we will have served 1,100 students, provided 12 play performances, and installed new art in our space for the entire community to enjoy. However, our ambition is to serve even more, ensuring that every child receives personalized attention, resources to take home, and a pathway to creative learning. We are in discussions with five new potential partner agencies, after-school programs, and schools in Memphis that are eager for our programs. To achieve our vision of serving over 1,100 school children in the Memphis area with our STEAM and Respect programs, we need to raise approximately $250,000. Additionally, we would love to secure an equivalent amount for new programs in the Arkansas Delta.
Where can we find you when you are not working?
You can find me hiking or taking long walks with my husband and two dogs. I also enjoy writing poetry for a blog I’ve created, knitting, and crocheting. I’ve always been an arts and crafts kind of person!
What is something people would be surprised to find out about you?
Many of the people I know now haven’t seen me act. They may be surprised that one day, I hope to step back onto the stage and participate in one of our DeltaARTS performances. It’s a dream I’ve held onto for a long time.
What is your best piece of advice?
One of my favorite quotes is by Henry David Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” This quote reminds me that dreams are essential, but to make them a reality, we must work diligently, address the details, and have a clear plan in place.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Coffee, good books, and a writing journal.
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