They came to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the knighted celebrity entrepreneur and the Canadian Glee dreamboat, with money to give and a story to tell, respectively. In a jammed space, still under construction, Sir Richard Branson announced his Virgin Unite foundation would grant $26,550 to the Project Limelight Society, a new local charity that has been bankrolled by two sisters – a casting director and a chartered accountant – to offer a theatre experience to at-risk youth.
Then Cory Monteith explained why.
He was a 19-year-old teenager going down "a very dark path" when he met Maureen Webb in Nanaimo, B.C.
"I was literally walking from the London Drugs with bags of groceries at a loose end in my life, a real transitional phase, looking for the next thing to do. I didn't know what that was," Mr. Monteith, who has spoken of his teenage alcohol and drug use in the past, told The Globe and Mail. "She was a friend of a friend who suggested on the side of the street ... that I come into her studios and take these acting classes. And I said, 'What am I going to do with acting?'"
What he did, eventually, was become a TV star.
"It was that initial inspiration that started me on what's going to be a 10-year career so far, culminating in Glee, which is a huge success. And it all started with a Project Limelight-like thing," said Mr. Monteith, now 30, whose TV character Finn Hudson's personal development is also aided (albeit in a different way) by his membership in the high school glee club.
When Ms. Webb's mother died in 2010, she and her sister Donalda Weaver felt they wanted to do something meaningful with their lives – and their money. They had grown up poor in East Vancouver, with a single mother, and they understood the impact a creative intervention could have on at-risk lives.
"I told [Mr. Monteith]about this idea last summer," Ms. Webb said. "He was very much in on the idea stage. Of course he got busy having to go back to Glee ... but he kept in touch, and then this opportunity came up and his connections with Virgin really helped us," said Ms. Webb, who stresses she was not the first person to cast Mr. Monteith, nor did she cast him in any of his big roles.
Meanwhile, she and Ms. Weaver launched the program in January with 26 children, then aged 7 to 11. One of them is Celestine Hilechi, who turned 12 in April. Born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, she moved to Canada six years ago. The family – her mother, who washes dishes at a restaurant, and father, who is currently away planting trees, and three younger brothers – now live in social housing in Strathcona, a few blocks from Project Limelight.
"I sing a lot," Celestine told The Globe. "I used to be very shy about singing around people, but I got over that because of Project Limelight."
On June 2, she'll star as the Queen of Hearts in Project Limelight's inaugural production Wonderland. She also writes songs. At Friday's event, she spoke in English and Swahili.
Celestine and the other girls were buzzing on Friday afternoon, not because of the grant, but because of the presence of Mr. Monteith.
"Can you bring us up on Glee?" one girl asked him. "Can you mention my name?"
Mr. Monteith is an "ambassador" for Virgin Unite, which has taken a special interest in youth homelessness, following an incident Sir Richard recounted on Friday in Vancouver.
"I was travelling into Toronto a few years ago and it was about 2 a.m. in the morning," he told the jammed room. "It was a freezing cold night, there was thick snow on the ground, and I saw a bunch of kids huddled over [a subway grate]to try to keep warm. And it just got me thinking that maybe we could help a little bit in trying to help some of those kids get off the streets and get their lives back together," said Sir Richard, who also announced a $25,000 grant for the Broadway Youth Resource Centre.
The London-based business mogul was in Vancouver to promote his airline – part of his $21-billion (U.S.) multinational Virgin Group.
He may have called B.C. a "state" and Vancouverites "Vancouvians" –according to reports from Thursday's airport publicity extravaganza – but Sir Richard seems to have found time to look into the local homelessness issue.
"From what I've heard, Vancouver is getting better and better ... but obviously, as I'm sure the mayor will acknowledge, there's still work to do." (Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was also at the event, and was next to Sir Richard during the interview.)
After their speeches, Sir Richard and Mr. Monteith – who each found fame and fortune through music – were treated to an impromptu kids' performance that included an at-times slightly off-key but nonetheless kick-ass rendition of Lady Gaga's Born This Way.
"The kids just glowed," Sir Richard told The Globe. "It's lovely to see that. From what you've heard about some of the kids, their lives were not glowing before they came here."