At 16, Martha has seen more in her life than many people twice her age. The oldest of 11 siblings, she's in a gang; her mother is in prison; she doesn't know where her father is, and she's been in and out of foster care most of her life.
So why is she singing and dancing her heart out? She's attending Summer at the Center, a performing arts program that she says makes her "feel like a star."
Martha is one of 26 Orange County teens selected from 65 applicants for the two-week workshop, a joint venture of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and the Orange County Department of Education.
Participants are from Orange County alternative-education schools--programs for students who function better in a nontraditional setting because they are coping with family issues such as child abuse, drug abuse, parents who are in prison and teenage pregnancy. Because some are in foster care, they are identified here by first name only.
After rehearsing a lively dance number for the concert that concludes the program, Martha confided that Summer at the Center has given her a new lease on life.
"See these tattoos?" she asked. "I decided that I'm going to get them removed. I want to be proud of myself. And I am getting out of the gang. None of my friends are in this program. They tease me for . . . wanting to sing and dance and be a better person. But I feel good about myself when I'm here."
Oliver, 17, has his own rockabilly garage band. He looks like a young John Travolta, plays guitar and writes poems and songs. He loves to sing but doesn't plan to pursue music as a career; he wants to be a helicopter mechanic.
Asked to name the best thing about Summer at the Center, Oliver came up with two. "Well, he said, grinning. "First, I've met a lot of girls. But I guess the best thing is that the teachers make you feel good about yourself."
Helping students build self-esteem is the main goal at Summer at the Center, which started in 1992 and is funded by the Orange County Performing Arts Center's education budget. It costs about $75,000 annually to run the program, which provides for teachers' salaries, student lunches, bus transportation, guest speakers and other expenses.
Students are selected on the basis of need and on the essays they write about why they want to participate. Not all are seeking a career in entertainment, but a handful have gone on to win performing arts scholarships to colleges and universities, where they continue their performing arts studies. A couple have toured with the Young Americans singing group.
Despite varied backgrounds, the teens seemed to bond quickly.
"You will see . . . surfer dudes, preppies and gang types here," said Katie, 17, who also participated in the program last year. "But once we start talking, we find that all of us have been through hard times, and, underneath everything, we feel the same about lots of stuff. After I left last year, I told a friend it was the best two weeks of my life."
Students receive instruction from artistic director Bill Brawley and others in music, dance and drama. Some of the teachers are arts professionals; others are from Orange County high schools. Rehearsals run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each weekday.
Their song list includes classics sung by Judy Garland, as well as show tunes from "Beauty and the Beast," "Lion King" and "Grease."
For Charli, 16, who has been dancing and singing since she was 2, the program is good practice. "I've always had a goal of opening my own theater someday," she said. "When I'm singing and dancing here and getting such positive feedback, it feels like a pretty realistic goal."
Hearing guest speakers such as Mario Lescot, a director at the Theatre District in Costa Mesa, helps fuel students' dreams. Lescot, 50, spoke on a recent afternoon about the years he spent in foster care and how, even though he's successful today, he felt nervous talking to them.
"It's all about acceptance," Lescot said. "No matter how old you are, or what background you come from, it all boils down to: 'Do people like me? Do they accept me?' "
The rehearsal atmosphere is relaxed: Teachers often toss out praise, and students laugh and give each other high fives.
The director said the rewards of teaching at Summer at the Center are high. He remembers a former gang member who participated three years ago, then went on to become a preschool teacher.
"Here was this big, tough guy, Luis," Brawley said. "It seemed like the program wasn't affecting him at all."
But the night of the performance, when the show concluded, Brawley felt a tap on his shoulder and shared a special moment with his hard-to-reach student.
"I turned around, and Luis was standing there. Very quietly, he said, 'Hey, I just wanted to say, "Thanks for saving my life." ' I couldn't speak, and it's still hard to talk about. To have someone tell you something like that is powerful. So powerful."
The Summer at the Center program is at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The concerts are free; parking is $6. Seating is limited; call for reservations: (714) 556-2122, Ext. 540.