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Orange County

At-Risk Youths Prepare for Next Stage in Life


Jonathan Lopez never thought he would have the courage to dance on stage. The aspiring death metal vocalist didn't have his band mask to hide behind while performing in front of his peers.

But after two weeks of intense training in theatrical arts, the 17-year-old from Anaheim fit right in with the dozen or so other boys swiveling hips in grass skirts and wigs Friday on stage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"I'm really shy," Lopez explained before his performance.

"I don't really talk to a lot of people because sometimes they have a tendency of being really mean."

Lopez and 39 other students are wrapping up the 11th annual Summer at The Center program with performances today.

They'll be showing what they've learned at the two-week dancing and singing camp for at-risk youth.

Their show will feature songs from movies and plays such as "Grease," "Men in Black" and several Disney tunes.

The 40 youths come from a variety of backgrounds and have had learning problems, suffered physical or mental abuse, or had ties to gangs.

They are students at continuation and juvenile detention facilities from around the county.

Summer at The Center, underwritten by private donations and corporate sponsors, aims to give students musical and theatrical training that will foster an appreciation for the arts, but also give them life skills that will help them enter the work force. More than 96% of the students graduate from high school, said Bill Brawley, who has directed the program for 11 years.

The teens were apprehensive at first.

"We all had equal amounts of lack of confidence ... we all had to test ourselves in front of each other," Lopez said as their lessons ended this week. "But that only brought us together more as a group."

Teachers and staff members were pleased with the students' effort and progress. "It's amazing to see the change in his demeanor and personality," said Sabrina Vasquez, Lopez's regular teacher, who came to watch his dress rehearsal. "It has done wonders for him. It lets him see what he is capable of."

Not only have they made new friends, the students have also gained confidence. "I love that I am at a place in my life right now where I can encourage [other students] and tell them that I understand how they feel and that we are all here to support them," said Megan Zuliani, 18, of Garden Grove.

Zuliani, who also took part in last year's program, said the students this year have made an extra effort to develop relationships.

"People are dealing with a lot of insecurities and problems in their life, but are able to express themselves and feel that it's OK," Zuliani said. "Everyone is part of a team."

Brawley, who shouted stage directions, coached and cajoled the youthful performers past their stage fright Friday, watched with pride.

"I hope the kids will leave believing in themselves and in turn believe in others," Brawley said.

"Kids can do anything as long as you support them and show that you believe in them."

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