Donda’s House officially opened its doors in August 2013, “but the idea of Donda’s House came about in December 2011,” the nonprofit’s co-founder and executive director, Donnie Smith, tells PEOPLE.
“That year, my husband Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith ran for City Council,” she says. “He wanted to launch an arts program for youth. Based on our research, somewhere along the lines of 75 percent of black and Latino young people in the United States do not have access to arts instruction.”
Adds Smith: “We lost by 200 votes, but we were so committed to the idea that we decided we didn’t need to be in office to try to make this happen for Chicago’s youth.”
As a Grammy award-winning writer, Rhymefest reached out to his extensive network of contacts for help. One of the people they approached? Kanye West.
“Rhymefest grew up with Kanye,” Smith explains. “They started working together when they were 16. He actually earned his Grammy for co-writing ‘Jesus Walks.’ ”
The three of them teamed up, and together they launched Donda’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to premium arts instruction. They chose to name it after West’s mother for her progressive work in education as a college professor.
“There were people who told us, ‘I wouldn’t have a doctorate if it weren’t for Dr. West,’ ” Smith says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t meet her before she passed, but I still felt very close to her spirit.”
The program accepts about 30 students per semester from a pool of more than 500 applicants. So far, they’ve helped almost 100 students, but they hope to expand further.
“There’s this great diversity of applicants and students,” Smith says. “Some are mothers, some are in college, some are high school dropouts.” The only rule? You must be between the ages of 14 and 24.
“It’s a holistic approach,” Smith says, emphasizing that the program isn’t your typical arts class.
“We tell our artists that being an artist is a full-body experience,” she says. “So we have a health and wellness class, we have a yoga instructor, we have a nutritionist. It’s very well-rounded.”
Kelsey Riley, 24, is one of the students whose life was changed by Donda’s House.
“I was looking for a way to revisit my passion of music,” Riley tells PEOPLE. “After attending the orientation before auditions were held, I knew that even if I wasn’t selected for this one-of-a-kind program that I would want to be involved.”
Fortunately, she was selected to be a part of the nonprofit’s inaugural class. But that wasn’t enough for Riley, who reached out to Smith about working for the organization after her semester ended.
“I took on the responsibility of managing Donda’s House social media outlets and serving as executive assistant on a volunteer basis,” she says.
It was at Riley’s suggestion that Donda’s House started using Facebook Groups to communicate. Each class gets its own group, and the students use it to stay in touch.
“Our students’ cell phone numbers change,” Smith says. “They’re transient in terms of their addresses. Facebook is the one permanent means of communication for our students.”
In addition, Facebook is using the video to announce a new Facebook Groups app that will help people and places like Donda’s House share faster and more easily with all the groups in their life. Check it out below:
As for the future of Donda’s House? “What we’d like is to have a Donda’s House in every low-income community around the world supported by entertainment professionals and highly recognizable public figures,” Smith says. “We want to create access for those students who don’t have it.”
Riley looks forward to being a part of this expansion.
“I hope to manage a branch of Donda’s House myself one day,” she says.