Frank Ski foundation takes kids to ‘next level'

Before the Frank Ski Kids Foundation whisked Dwayne Walker off to Florence to study art in the shadows of Italian Renaissance masters, he wasn’t sure whether his talent for drawing could ever amount to a job and a paycheck.

Now, the 16-year-old junior at Shiloh High School in Snellville is considering art programs at the Savannah College of Art and Design and Full Sail University with an eye on using the degree for a career in graphic design. He also aspires to own a gallery.

“Before we left for Italy, we went to [the advertising agency] BBDO, and they told us about art jobs,” Walker said. “The art director position caught my eye. I didn’t think there were a lot of paying art jobs out there until I met that one person that inspired me to focus my art.”

In July 2009, Ski and his wife, Tanya Rodriguez, accompanied Walker and nine other young artists to Italy to sketch in front of Michelangelo’s “David,” take classes at the Bargello Museum and meet artists working out of an abandoned convent.

The Frank Ski Kids Foundation takes trips like this every year to introduce Atlanta’s budding athletes, artists and scientists to the world and to encourage leadership skills.

Or as Ski likes to call it, taking them to “the next level,” a phrase he frequently uses to describe the nonprofit’s mission of giving talented students the extra nudge they may not be getting at home or school.

“These kids are more intellectual than their parents think they are,” Ski said. “The biggest hindrance I’ve found for most of the kids is their parents. What do you do when your child is intellectually way past where you are?”

Since the foundation’s beginning in 2000, Ski has used his voice on V-103’s "Frank & Wanda" show and his connection to Atlanta A-listers to attract support that funds trips to the Amazon, Rome, Belize, the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands as well as other programs and events. Two events this weekend should lead to more opportunities for Frank Ski kids.

Saturday, four Atlanta football teams will compete in the Youth Bowl at Grady High School for cash and grant money. Sunday’s wine tasting and live auction is the charity’s biggest fundraiser, with a guest list that includes Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Mayor Kasim Reed, Chris Tucker, Ludacris and a few other famous faces. Since 2004, the yearly wine event has brought in $800,000.

Students hoping to go on one of the trips are evaluated by judges working in the field of the excursion's theme and can expect tough competition. Ski said hundreds are turned away.

“They’re taking classes every day,” Ski said. “It’s not a week of vacationing and hanging out. It’s a week of studying. Then at night they get to hear from me. I’m probably harder on them than the scientists and teachers they meet. This is not about just getting out of high school and going to UGA."

Frank Ski Kids Foundation Youth Bowl. Games at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Dec. 4. Grady High School Stadium, 929 Charles Allen Drive, Atlanta. $5 at the stadium. Free for children 5 and younger.

Seventh Annual Frank Ski Celebrity Wine Tasting and Live Auction. 3 to 7 p.m. Dec. 5. Location disclosed upon ticket purchase. $250. 404-870-0230. www.frankskikids.org/rsvp.