John Walt Foundation

Nonprofit Heroes

Empowering the Youth Through Art-Based Resources

Shortly after the February 2017 death of budding Chicago rapper John Walt, his mother Nachelle Pugh launched a foundation in his name and memory that assists and guides young people interested in artistic careers.

Pugh came up with the idea for the John Walt Foundation somewhat spontaneously. After Walt was murdered while walking home from work, many media outlets requested interviews with Pugh. 

For a while she turned them all down, before finally agreeing to one. During the interview, the reporter asked her how she wants people to remember her son.

“I thought about it and said, ‘I want to give scholarships to young people who want to get into the arts,’” Pugh said. 

“During his life, Walt had opportunities for academic scholarships, which was wonderful. But there are talented young people who are not scholars and don’t get amazing grades, and they need help to prepare them for the careers they want to get into.”

By November of that year, with help from some of her son’s famous friends, Nachelle created the nonprofit John Walt Foundation. The 501c3 organization provides scholarships to young people ages 14 to 24 who are interested in arts-based careers.

The organization also connects young people with mentors, professionals with experience in their artistic field. Pugh said they work to pair young people with mentors who aren’t much older than them, and share their racial and cultural backgrounds. 

It’s inspiring for young people to work with someone like them who has overcome challenges to build a career in the arts, she said.

“We’ve helped fashion designers, graphic artists, poets, singers,” Pugh said. “It’s like an artistic grant for them to do the particular art they want, and we help to guide them.”

The foundation sponsored a young woman who aspires to be an art promoter. Through their help, she created gallery spaces to showcase other artists’ visual works, and built an online brand to pursue her dream. 

In another instance, the foundation provided funding for a young dancer to enroll in master’s level dance classes.

Pugh’s son, known professionally as John Walt, performed with a group called Pivot Gang. A rising star at the time of his death, he performed alongside his lifelong friends, including well known recording artist Saba, who is Pugh’s cousin. 

Throughout his life, Walt volunteered in the community and helped neighbors in big and small ways. He came from a family with a spirit of service — his grandmother was a nurse and his grandfather was a postal worker. 

Pugh also likes to volunteer, and worked for years coordinating a volunteer program at Rush University Medical Center.

Walt volunteered through that program, helping at back-to-school events. He also worked with young people through nonprofit arts initiatives in the city. However, the way Walt affected his community can also be seen in subtle ways, Pugh said. 

“People ask what Walt’s legacy is; you build your legacy just by being who you are,” Pugh said. “A person’s legacy is how they touch people every day. A lot of people I didn’t know prior to Walt’s passing, I found his legacy in them.”

During the COVID pandemic, the John Walt Foundation pivoted its services to provide essential supplies and assistance to people in immediate need. Groceries, baby formula and gift cards helped neighbors stay healthy. 

Pugh took the tragic death of her son and turned it into a way to remember Walt, while propagating positivity and success for young people in her community. Though it may not be obvious, Pugh said the John Walt Foundation fights the type of violence that took Walt’s life.

“I feel that I am running an anti-violence organization. The person who took my son’s life, if he had guidance that exposed him to a more positive environment, maybe that day wouldn’t have happened,” Pugh said. 

“If we expose young people to better situations and give them better experiences, we may be able to help them avoid a violent situation altogether.”

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