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Jeneé Osterheldt

Kansas City 7-year-old paints to help African orphans

Bottles of paint, brushes and canvases are everywhere. Abstract art covers the walls. This living room is an art studio.

When I walk into Nicole and Brian Williams’ south Kansas City home on a recent afternoon, their daughter Savanna is on the floor painting with all kinds of purple. Her cascade of curls hangs in her face.

“I like purple, because there are so many different shades of it,” says Savanna, the 7-year-old behind Saturday’s “Art for Africa” show at Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Her work is largely inspired by “The Wiz,” 1978’s soulful adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (she has pictures of him on her wall and can moonwalk).

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“I saw the movie and I liked the music and how they all found each other and helped each other. I wanted to paint scenes from it,” she says. But it’s deeper than that. Her work will sell for $25 to $100 to raise money for the Ndengera Foundation in Gisenyi, Rwanda. The goal: $1,200 to help children get clothes, food, medical care and education.

“I want to help kids because when I was a baby people helped me,” says Savanna, who was born at 26 weeks — over a trimester early — and spent 72 days in St. Luke’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Every year since then, her family has participated in the March of Dimes and visited St. Luke’s to give back.

Two years ago, rather than just asking for money, Savanna wanted to paint pictures and sell them. But Saturday, she says, is her first official art show. And while she and her parents continue to help NICU families, Savanna also wants to help kids who she says “don’t have what we have.”

“They don’t have shoes, shirts, shorts, clothes, food, something to play with, education or a home,” she says of the orphans in Rwanda. “I want to help them get what they need.”

Her mom, Nicole, says Savanna rarely paints as just a hobby. People have offered to pay her for her work, but she wants to do it only if the money is helping others.

“I watch her work and sometimes you wonder what she’s doing. One of my favorite pieces, the Tin Man, it’s shades of gray on canvas. There’s a meaning behind everything she does in her art,” Nicole says. “I like that she is just oblivious to it all. She’s just being herself.”

I point out a long, bold golden canvas. “Is that the Yellow Brick Road?” I ask her. And we all start singing “Ease on Down the Road.”

She’s a happy girl. Her shirt this day says it all: Keep on Smiling.

“I’m excited,” she says. “My birthday is the day before the show. I feel good, like I am helping kids get what they need. Some of my friends are giving back. Some of my friends are learning to give back.”

Brian, her father, is in awe.

“Words cannot explain how proud I am,” he says. “When I think about where we were and how far she’s come, from 1 pound and 15 ounces to now? Look at her. There was a time when people would have asked who my hero was and I would have said Frank White, Willie Wilson, George Brett. But they pale in comparison to her.”

I look at her and I think she has everything the Tin Man, Dorothy, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion wanted. And she wants to help other kids have it all. Yep. Savanna is the real Wiz.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

‘Art for Africa’

See Savanna Williams’ “Wiz”-inspired paintings from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway. Canvases will sell for $25-$100. Proceeds will benefit Ndengera Foundation for orphans in Rwanda.

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