Louisiana-born Bridgette Wash grew up in the tumults of segregation, dreaming of the day she would pull the latch of the Coca-Cola machine that only white people were allowed to pull in the early 1960s. She’ll never forget the day when she finally had the opportunity to retrieve a Coca-Cola bottle with her own two hands.

Her 10-year-old grandson, Jhaperri, recently shared her moving story—handwriting the anecdote in his own words to win the Stagebridge Theater’s Grandparent Tales Storytelling Contest.

Stagebridge, the oldest senior Theater Company in the U.S., was founded in 1978 with the mission to “Unite the generations via performing arts.” In addition to offering a variety of music, theater, and arts courses for adults 50 years and older, Stagebridge holds an intergenerational storytelling program called Storybridge. Now in its 22nd year, Storybridge unites master storytellers, professional instructors and students who have graduated from the Stagebridge program to go into schools in surrounding San Francisco Bay Area neighborhoods with at-risk children and introduce storytelling to the classroom. The Grandparent Tales Contest is just one of the many storytelling activities Storybridge sponsors, and it encourages five- to 12-year-olds in underprivileged communities to submit stories about their grandparents or an elderly community member they find particularly interesting.

Jhaperri, who just completed fourth grade in Oakland, Ca. was one of the 2015 winners with his short story titled The Coca-Cola Bottle.

“Of the 257 entries we had, this one brought tears to my eyes,” said Jose Rivera, executive director of Stagebridge. “The second I read it, I started tearing up at my desk; it is just so beautiful. That’s the power of music, the performing arts, storytelling—it elevates you, it revitalizes you."

Jhaperri was not only recognized at the contest’s annual awards ceremony, but also had the opportunity to read his story aloud at Stagebridge’s end-of-year ceremony and performing showcase.

“When Jhaperri read—the house just fell apart,” said Rivera.

Jhaperri first heard about the storytelling contest at his school, where his entire class was required to participate. He asked his grandmother to tell him a story.

“I decided I was going to ask my grandmother about her background, and she told me one particular story about Coca-Cola,” he recalls.

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'Of the 257 entries we had, this one brought tears to my eyes,' said Jose Rivera, executive director of Stagebridge. 

Bridgette was born at a Louisiana charity hospital in 1959, in a little town called Harvey across the river from New Orleans. She lived on the outskirts of town with her grandmother, who made a living growing her own produce and raising animals.

“Being down South, I did experience segregation and racism—a lot of it. But my grandmother had taken it really well,” Bridgette said.

She recalled her experiences as a child in the heart of New Orleans. “In the downtown area, I remember the water fountains saying ‘for blacks’ or ‘for whites only’,” she said.

But the bright red of the Coca-Cola machine in the corner store always caught her eye.  

“I wasn’t able to pull the bottle from the machine," she said. "And it’s a story that’s so stuck in my head because I would ask my grandmother, ‘Why can’t I pull the latch of the machine to get my own bottle?”

It was only when Bridgette was a few years older that she understood why. “I realized it was because of the color of my skin, because I would see other little children, white children, who could put a dime or nickel in the Coca-Cola machine, and they had the opportunity to pull the latch. That’s when I started realizing I was different,” she explained.

Though Jhaperri had learned history of racial segregation in school, he was given a firsthand lesson from his grandmother.

“It was hurtful to hear that my grandma didn’t get the right treatment,” Jhaperri said, writing in his story how his grandmother would go into the corner store along the dirt road where she waited for the bus to buy Coca-Cola.

“My grandmother’s family was allowed to buy things from this store, but they were not allowed to touch anything,” his story continued.

Whenever Bridgette wanted to buy anything, she waited patiently as the store owner retrieved the items, including Coca-Cola. It was not until Bridgette was eight years old that she finally had the opportunity to fetch her own bottle, a moment she will always remember.

The story remains just as poignant to the family now as it did to Bridgette as a child and its message  rings with Kennisha, Bridgette’s daughter, who was 12 when her mother first told her the story.

“She’s a really strong person, and she doesn’t let a lot of things get to her,” said Kennisha of Bridgette. “She continues to move on each day, and if something is difficult for her, she just keeps going at it. Her story and her life give me a lot of inspiration to be good to people and be good to yourself, and eventually everything will turn out.”

Bridgette recalls her own grandmother’s positivity, despite the tenuous circumstances, as a driving force for her strength. “At that time, they were trying to get us all to come together. My grandmother, she would say “Bay-Bay, it’s okay now, things are getting better. She always taught me to always remember that all men are created equal, And I hold on to that,” Bridgette said.

“And she always said love other people no matter what the color of their skin. Always be nice, and always keep a good heart. And I did.” It’s a lesson she has passed on to Kennisha and Jhaperri. 

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Jhaperri reads his story at Stagebridge's end-of-year celebration.

Dream Big

Jhaperri has big goals, with dreams of attending University of California at Berkeley and becoming a scientist and basketball player. The story motivates him with all of his aspirations, he says.

“It gives me inspiration—if I’m taking a math test, or do something related to science, or even playing basketball, and if I’m not doing well on it, my grandma’s story inspires me to keep moving on and keep doing it and keep working hard," he said. "And eventually if I keep working hard, it’s all going to get better, every day."

In his story, he wrote of the importance of equality, but said for him, the most important message is to pursue your dreams.

“My grandmother says the moral of this story is never give up on your dreams,” wrote Jhaperri.

As he completed his speech rendition of the story at the Stagebridge performing showcase, Rivera said not a dry eye remained in the room. Speaking with poise and confidence, Jhaperri showed no trace of nerves. “It was exciting to read my speech,” he said. “And if somebody’s crying, then it’s a really good story!” 

Rivera added, “He’s an amazing kid, a spunky fun little gentleman. And when we finished the ceremony, I said Jhaperri, your career path is Atlanta, Hollywood, The White House."

But for now, Jhaperri says he will continue to pursue his passions for writing, school, and sports.

“I like writing because you can find writing all over the place in the world,” said Jhaperri, “And it allows you to share anything. And I’m just so happy I could share my grandma’s story.”