It’s a Good Thing: How a Vancouver-based foundation is providing opportunities for at-risk youth

Vancouver's Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which targets at-risk and underserved children and youth, had to pivot online during the pandemic.

Credit: Sarah McLachlan School of Music via Twitter

The Sarah McLachlan School of Music recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with an event featuring its eponymous founder

Backed by the Wolverton Foundation, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music helps establish a cultural cornerstone

Few sectors have felt the impact of COVID-19 as acutely as the performing arts. For 2020 and much of 2021, staying apart was our main social focus; packing a concert hall to sing, cheer, or even lob a “bravo” at performers was not on. But beyond its important economic role, the performing arts—especially music—is critical to the social development of youth.

When the pandemic hit, many of the music programs geared toward young people had to pivot online—and Vancouver’s Sarah McLachlan School of Music (SoM), which targets at-risk and underserved children and youth, was no different. SoM opened its doors as an outreach program of the Arts Umbrella in April 2002, becoming a standalone charity in September 2011—thanks, in large part, to financial support from the Wolverton Foundation. But for much of 2020 through to last September, SoM’s doors had to stay closed.

“They pivoted incredibly quickly, understanding that a lot of these kids are in vulnerable situations,” says Lisa Wolverton, president of the eponymous Vancouver-based foundation. “The kids would get on Zoom with their teachers, with musical instruments loaned from the school. They needed it for their mental health, so keeping that connection going was really critical.”

The Wolverton family—which made its name in the brokerage business, in real estate and through an ownership stake in Mark James Group and Northam Beverages (Whistler Brewing and Lonetree Cider are two of Northam’s best-known brands)—has a longstanding relationship with the arts. Wolverton’s late father, Newton (founder of Wolverton Securities), and mother, Dona (now 90 and a director of the Wolverton Foundation), were longtime patrons and fundraisers for the Vancouver Opera, Playhouse and Symphony.

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SoM also resonates with Wolverton on a personal level. After moving to New York City in the late 1980s to pursue a career in fashion, she made a detour into music: “I got an introduction to Bobby McFerrin’s manager through a friend and surreptitiously ended up in the record industry.”

She took a marketing job with Polygram Records, moving briefly to San Francisco in the mid-’90s to work for Bill Graham Presents (the renowned rock concert promoter) before returning to Vancouver for a job with Sony Music Canada. “And then Napster came along, the industry collapsed, and a lot of people were laid off,” she says. “I left on my own.”

Wolverton had long been inspired by the philanthropic efforts of her parents and grandparents. Her father was born in India, where his father (an eye surgeon and missionary) ran a hospital and leper colony in Pithapuram. “There was always a lot of talk around the dinner table about giving back to the community,” Wolverton recalls. After Newton died in 1990, Wolverton’s mother began thinking about her own legacy: “She came to me and said, I want to put a family foundation together and provide more musical opportunities for kids in Vancouver.”

Before the Wolvertons stepped in, SoM programming was delivered from a church basement and only able to serve 75 kids annually. After setting up the foundation in 2009, Wolverton helped secure a permanent home for SoM in Mount Pleasant and provide a predictable level of operational funding. SoM now serves more than 750 vulnerable youth in B.C.—and has satellite locations in Surrey and Edmonton.

Philanthropists in B.C. have long gravitated toward health care and education to make their mark. But Wolverton (who sits on the board of the Philanthropy Workshop, a New York–based organization “committed to solving the world’s most pressing social issues”) wants to make the performing arts a focus for her foundation—and, she hopes, for future local philanthropists. “There’s a lot of capital sitting on the sidelines, so how do we get that capital moving? And how do we get it into arts and culture?”