LAFAYETTE (CBS SF) — One man is world famous as the Phantom of the Opera. The other took the stage as Peter Pan. Both of them changed the life of this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

“Happiness can be this wonderful, contagious thing,” Leslie Noel said with contentment.

Noel’s theater students share the magic of music through her Peter Pan Foundation in Lafayette, a non-profit born out of her own real-life drama: at age 16, she met her hero, Franc D’Ambrosio, the longest running Phantom of the Opera.

D’Ambrosio introduced her to his voice teacher, who invited her to be his student in Italy.

“And of course, this is the moment all my dreams came true,” Noel explained.

But at 17, she suffered from a rare nervous system disorder that paralyzed half her face and body. She says her determination helped her get well.

She remembered thinking, “I’m going to walk and I’m going to fly to Italy and I’m going to be on stage for Phantom of the Opera!”

Noel did make it to Italy, then returned to the Bay Area to teach and perform. She was so inspired by a promising 17-year-old student, Steffen Ryge, she wrote a musical and cast him as Peter Pan.

But just months later, Ryge was killed in a car accident. That’s when Noel realized the inspiration the theater had given them both.

“Look at all the confidence and magic that this boy is letting off into the universe just because he was given a chance,” Noel said.

Out of the tragedy, came a life changing decision. Noel let go of her dream to become a Broadway star. She embraced a new dream inspired by Ryge.

“I said, ‘I want to start an organization that helps young people find the biggest and best versions of themselves,'” Noel explained.

She founded the Peter Pan Foundation in 2007. Today, 500 performers, mostly teenagers, put on three stage shows a year that raise tens of thousands of dollars each for local charities.

Franc D’Ambrosio even came to Moraga recently to sing in a benefit concert that helped Noel and her foundation raise $50,000 for Oakland Children’s Hospital.

“That generosity of spirit and that openness to give back is pretty tremendous,” D’Ambrosio remarked.

Noel has helped give 10-year-old Tabitha Kenney courage:

“She’s pretty much helped me get over my fears.”

She gave 16-year-old Rosie Tyler encouragement:

“My self confidence is through the roof!”

And 13-year-old Sam Oshay, hope:

“She was the young girl whose dream came true, she was the movie in real life, she was the protagonist in the story of life.”

So for training confident young performers who give back to their community, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Leslie Noel.

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