The most decorated star on Broadway regularly spends the night on the sidewalk. For the last few years, six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald has joined Sleep Out: Broadway Edition, which invites hundreds of members of the New York theater community to pass an entire night on the street, regardless of weather. The annual event is a fundraiser for Covenant House, the organization that helps homeless teens in 30 cities across six countries.
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McDonald first got to know Covenant House when she was working on “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” the 2014 Billie Holiday bio that earned her that sixth Tony. She’s since become a board member. Although she was initially spurred by Holiday’s history (the blues singer was herself a homeless teen), McDonald’s connection to the organization runs much deeper. “I’m trying to raise socially aware activists and feminists and citizens of the human race, and Covenant House really brought all of that more into focus,” says the mother of two, whose youngest, Sally James, was born last year. “Everything I bought for the baby, I’ve been like, ‘You get to borrow it for a minute, Sally James, but it’s for the Cov kids,’” referring to the organization’s programs for teen mothers.
Kevin Ryan, the president and CEO of Covenant House, says he regularly receives notes and checks from new donors who say they were inspired to become involved when they heard McDonald speak about the charity during one of her concerts. “What I love about [Audra],” Ryan says, “is she really understands that the least interesting thing about our kids is their homelessness. They’re students and interns and actors and rappers and poets.”
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McDonald gets the chance to spend time with the kids when she visits local outposts of Covenant House on the down low, or serves them breakfast on Thanksgiving Day — or spends the night with them at the Sleep Out. “You wake up the next morning, if you slept at all, and you’re converted,” she says. “These kids, this is their life. It just changes you’re worldview. It can’t not.”