Forgotten orphan inspires music executive to give back

Published 8:26 am Friday, December 27, 2019

NASHVILLE (AP) — Shane Tarleton’s eyes filled with tears as he remembered his first working trip to Honduras.
Tarleton, a senior vice president at Warner Music Nashville, was in the Central American country for a video and documentary shoot in 2013. The location wasn’t one of the country’s picturesque coasts but in El Progreso, a city with a population starkly divided by income, with no middle class.
He partnered with the founders of the nonprofit group Hearts2Honduras who helped with the shoot. The team led Tarleton to an orphanage, and as they were pulling up, he noted the eight-foot concrete perimeter fence topped with chicken wire.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this place has got to be terrible if this is how it is, like the kids are trying to get out,’” he recalled. “What I learned is it was to keep predators out, not to keep the kids in.”
The music executive met the children and was immediately overwhelmed by their openness and excitement — except a solitary five-year-old boy. The orphanage’s employees told Tarleton to avoid him, that the child didn’t like people. Forget about him, they said.
The child’s name was Luis. Six years later, Tarleton said Luis is the reason his heart is in Honduras. Luis — who doesn’t qualify for adoption — calls Tarleton “Papa.” While he can’t bring Luis home to Nashville, he’s determined to help.
This month, Tarleton launched the Shane Tarleton Scholarship Fund to send Luis, more than 50 other children in the orphanage and others in the area to school. In Honduras, education isn’t free. If families can’t afford the required uniforms, multiple sets of specific shoes, books and school supplies, kids can’t attend classes. Orphans never get the opportunity.
“I think over the past six years I have learned how I can affect change there,” Tarleton said. “We’ll start with a few kids, and hopefully we can make a big difference.”
The first day Tarleton met Luis, they sat on the floor for hours. They didn’t speak the same language, but the little boy was awed by the photos on Tarleton’s cell phone. Tarleton started snapping shots of them together and showing the pictures to him.
After dinner that night, Tarleton was sick to his stomach and couldn’t sleep.
“I’m like, ‘This just can’t be,’” he recalled. “I knew his story, that he didn’t have a family and he had been there since he was one. The next morning, I was talking to Rhonda, the lady who founded Hearts2Honduras. I said to her, ‘I don’t know what to do, but this has touched me, and I have to be involved. I have to help.’”
Rhonda Wicks hears that all the time – people say they want to help and then she never hears from them again. This wasn’t one of those times.
“He said, ‘I can’t stand this. It’s changed me forever, and I want to be a really big part of this,’” Wicks recalled. “He stuck to his word. And every time he goes, everyone is so excited he’s coming. He brings something to the table, sparkle, almost like a Santa feeling. The kids just flock around him.”
Tarleton noticed there were no education opportunities at the orphanage. He wasn’t allowed to hire a tutor for Luis – it wouldn’t have been fair to other children. So, he decided he wanted to set up a classroom for all the children to use. Tarleton returned to Nashville and got to work. Over the next three months, he bought school supplies and ESL (English as a second language) flashcards, but when he discovered how expensive ESL books were, he panicked because he couldn’t afford them.
His friends Kelly Clarkson and Brandon Blackstock threw him a 40th birthday party and asked guests to bring something for the orphanage’s classroom. People brought notebooks, pens, pencils, paper – and ESL books.
“I had huge buckets, barrels of supplies for this classroom, all because of that,” he said.
When Tarleton returned to Honduras, he cleaned out a junk room at the orphanage, painted it, and then took a truck to a nearby town to buy dry erase boards, tables and to order the books. He hired a teacher to come to the orphanage several times a week to teach the kids English. Now when he goes back, the children greet him in his language.
Six years since his initial visit, Tarleton said he’s “learned so much” and gained perspective. He’s ready to do even more.
“Over these past years, I’ve become more and more and more passionate about this,” he said. “It all started because I fell in love with this little kid on the ground that morning. I know for a fact that there aren’t coincidences in life. I know that, and he’s having a challenging time as are all the people who live in that community. That’s the whole reason that I wanted to start this scholarship fund because I’ve learned over the last six years how to navigate this.”
Tarleton partnered with Hearts2Hondarus to start the fund. Up to this point, he has self-funded education at the orphanage. In 2020, he plans to grow the concept and send children from the orphanage and in the town to schools. If children who are part of the scholarship program need uniforms and school supplies, those are covered. If children test into the area’s private schools that offer a high level of education, the scholarship fund will cover their fees, too. Tarleton also has a plan for transportation to and from school.
Children age out of the orphanage at 18 years old. Without an education, he said they make about $2 a day.
“Hopefully we can make a big difference,” he said.
“Shane is just a doer,” said Nashville teacher Kimberly Price, who has been on multiple trips to Honduras with Tarleton. “It’s amazing what he’s done there. He sees a need and doesn’t just acknowledge it; he finds a solution. I think he’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and he’s a blessing to everyone he comes in contact with down there.”
When the children begin school, Tarleton believes many of the kids will be scholastically behind other students in their grade. The teachers at the orphanage will shift from being the primary educators to tutors to help them catch up.
“We’ve thought about this and dreamed about this for so long, and now we are actually in a place where we can put rubber to the road and get kids in school,” he said. “I do believe that that energy is contagious. In my mind, I’m dreaming as big as I can possibly dream. This was not in my plan, but I know it’s a path that I’m supposed to be on. I’m just so grateful that I met this little dude because this opened up my heart.”

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