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Heart and Souls

At St. Thomas school, there's a kind of miracle in the making. It's called 'For Young Improvers.'


The auditorium windows are opened wide, inviting patches of soft light and cool swirls of evening breeze, as familiar here as the strident wails of sirens and car alarms, and the slow rattle of shopping carts being pushed along 15th Street in Pico-Union.

It is the final performance of "Godspell" at St. Thomas the Apostle School. Borrowed costumes are due back tomorrow, and the school year soon will end. Tonight is one last time for young stars to shine.

Standing in back is Dan Horn, 35, the school's principal. To Horn, "Godspell" represents a sort of miracle, the kind that anchors educators to their work. This play, Horn says, has changed lives.

Included in the cast are Jorge Gamez, quarterback on the football team, and Adolfo Guevara, who last year was a self-described troublemaker. He didn't get along with teachers, didn't study, got in fights.

Adolfo typifies the changes Horn has seen in students through a 2-year-old program at the school called For Young Improvers (FYI), which teaches values such as trust, honesty, respect and teamwork.

That a Catholic school would teach values is not unusual. What is unique about the program is that participants, in grades six through eight, serve as both student and teacher. They are helping each other become leaders and develop problem-solving skills in a neighborhood where bad decisions can get you killed.

And "Godspell," Horn says, is proof that the program works. More than 50 students auditioned for the play in December. "Before FYI, it wouldn't have been the cool thing to do, and peer pressure would have kept a lot of them from auditioning," he says.

"Godspell" also represents something unique about the people drawn to this school, Horn says.

On piano is Mary Ekler, who performs with Little Anthony and the Imperials and whose resume lists work with Helen Reddy, Wilson Phillips and Freda Payne. Ekler is donating her time to the play.

Joseph Walsh, who once performed on Broadway in "Amadeus" and now teaches kindergarten, is the director. There was a moment during rehearsals when Walsh watched Adolfo, in the role of Jesus, stand alone on stage and blossom before his eyes. His words turned into music and it flowed from his heart. For Walsh this confirmed why he became a teacher and why he stayed after school every day for four months to work on the play before heading off to his second job waiting tables.

The choreographer is Colleen O'Shaughnessey, a recent biology graduate from Mount St. Mary's College. For four years, O'Shaughnessey has been a volunteer dance instructor at St. Thomas. Next year, she will teach fourth grade.

For O'Shaughnessey, there was a similar moment that still brings tears. "A student came up to me and said I was like a second mother to her. It blew me away. I'm 24 years old. I'm not a mother to anyone. For a kid to think that I had such an impact in a positive way, I can't imagine being anywhere else."

The student was Maricela Chavez, a seventh-grader who sings two solos in the play. In the audience are her three sisters and mother, Irene Ruiz. They live near the school in a small apartment with no bedrooms.

Ruiz came to Los Angeles as a child from the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. She has sent all four daughters to St. Thomas for the values that are taught there. The two oldest now are in college. To pay their tuitions, Ruiz sold tamales and corn in front of the church. She made clothes to sell, and now she cleans houses.

Her life has been hard but good, she says. She wishes she could have provided her children with a house, where they would be safe and she could watch them play. Perhaps her dreams were too big, she says, but it will be different for her daughters.

"All the time I have bad jobs," Ruiz says. "Sweep there, wash this, clean here--the toilets. I say OK because I'm happy with my job because I have nothing, only my arms. I tell my daughters, I no want you to work with your arms. I want you to work with your minds. The world is different for you."

Their home is small, but it is filled with love, Ruiz says, and as long as her children study hard, the future is filled with promise. Ruiz is one of the many role models--the heroes--who live in the neighborhood.

Ruiz pays careful attention to the play. She doesn't understand all the words, but as the actors take their final bows, she applauds exuberantly and thumbs away the tears from her cheeks. To see her daughter perform onstage is to see her dreams come true.


Activities in FYI range from hopping around a circle on one leg and flapping arms like wings of a frantic chicken, to standing in the center of a tight circle and falling backward, trusting that others will break your fall. In the process, students have become more open, more willing to examine and express their feelings, which sometimes run bone-deep.

"My first year here, I had 56 funerals in this church," says Father Dennis O'Neil, pastor of St. Thomas. "Twenty-seven of them died from bullets."

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