By Gunjan J. Sewhani
Resident sat down with Paige Davis, a transplanted New Yorker who has turned her passion for one of the most quintessential New York phenomena, Broadway, into a means for helping the city’s children in need. And what great timing it was: our August issue is all about the “back-to-school” season. Paige has worked extensively with Operation Backpack—providing brand-new backpacks and school supplies for kids in our city’s homeless shelters.
Paige’s musical theater background has brought her to the stage on Broadway, around the world and eventually to television with TLC’s Trading Spaces. Trading Spaces was the cultural and cult television phenomenon and the means by which America first got to know Paige by name. She says: “Trading Spaces was really the catalyst for a new genre of television. I became known as a host and by my own name as opposed to a character.”
Today she is grateful to be able to use this status as a prominent New Yorker to help Volunteers of America-Greater New York, a cause very dear to her heart. She explains how her Broadway and television experience has exploded the world of possibilities for her professionally as well as philanthropically: “I don’t think I’m alone—when you have a recognizable name and face, you feel a blessing to be able to shed light on causes that are important to you and you also feel an obligation.” The year after Paige became involved with Volunteers of America, other luminaries such as Susan Sarandon, Kevin Bacon and the Mets players joined the organization in addressing the lack of access to educational supplies that hinder New York City’s homeless youth.
Her passion for the work is contagious. With a glisten in her eye, she reveals to us: “The dirty little secret about volunteering is that it’s the most selfish thing you can do. It can feel like a chore at first but, the second you get involved, you realize it gives you such a powerful feeling—especially with a program that’s so hands-on.” She describes watching volunteers who are so personally invested in packing backpacks that they choose school supplies as if they are for their own children.
Operation Backpack tailors its school supplies to the needs of students from kindergarten through high school. Every backpack goes to a homeless child who really needs it. Speaking to the everyday struggles of a homeless person, she gets to the root of the problem: “A backpack makes a difference between a kid being excited to go to school and not wanting to go. We all deeply understand what it must be like to have less than your classmates and if you are going to school like that, you are going to feel less than. You’re afraid of being discovered because homelessness, unfortunately, still has this very misplaced veil of shame. Kids are terrified. Operation Backpack gives kids the confidence and dignity to go to school as their housed classmates do.”
Hence, Operation Backpack aims to equip students with the school supplies that they need. Its umbrella organization, Volunteers of America, has shelters and programs that are geared toward helping the homeless find jobs and, eventually, housing that they can afford.
Perhaps it’s her musical theater background, or perhaps it’s just her zeal for her work with Volunteers of America, but Paige’s entire face lights up in admiration for the donors when she talks about getting brand-new protractors and backpacks out to thousands of children. While her mannerisms are generally animated, they reach an exceptionally elevated note when she describes being able to use her voice and musical theater gifts at events that benefit Operation Backpack: a seamless melding of her passions for theater and helping the New York City community.
These two communities, albeit discrete, are both manifestations of the city that she has fallen in love with so completely. Paige currently resides on the Upper West Side. When asked what makes a person a true New Yorker, the first adjective she uses is “resilient.” She elaborates: “I just think you gotta be able to bounce back because it’s a tough city. They always say if you can make it here you can make it anywhere and, you have to believe that or the city will eat you alive. But that’s just because it’s a train—it’s in motion, it doesn’t stop. I love that it never sleeps; I love that it never, ever sleeps.”
And Paige doesn’t either. She was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy award for her show on the Oprah Winfrey Network: Home Made Simple. She continues to dedicate her time to Volunteers of America and Operation Backpack. Of course, you can’t keep Paige off of Broadway. She was most recently in a triumphant return as Roxie in Chicago. With an almost gleeful smile, she tells us that she is running late for dance class and is out the door. •