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Shelter Kids Riff in the Key of Uncertainty

A Long Beach music camp offers homeless youths a chance to lose themselves in artistry.

August 07, 2006|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

In the early morning cool, Megan Sims perched on the curb, clutching her donated black clarinet case. She was waiting, along with her little brother and a friend, for the music. All three burst into grins as Jen Pratt's Explorer pulled up at the Long Beach homeless shelter.

"Hey, guys!" Pratt said, swinging open the door of her SUV. A jazz tune tumbled out while her passengers scrambled in and started trying to identify the instruments in the song on the radio. Megan, 12, and Sean, 10, said goodbye to their mother, Carolyn, as shelter neighbor Jonathan Rodriguez, 9, slid in beside them.

One more stop for another boy, whose family had just moved from the Transitional Living Center into an apartment, and the weekday journey to Excelsus music camp had begun.

The 12-mile round trip and the eight hours in between, the students say, is a safe constant in their unpredictable days.

At Excelsus, they play with professional performers -- such pieces as Beethoven's 5th Symphony but also the "Pink Panther" theme.

"It makes me feel good," said Megan, fingering her long brown hair.

"I actually feel joyful when I'm playing the piano," said Sean, who rarely complains about the cramped shelter room he shares with his mother and sister while his father, Stephen, recovers from lung cancer at a nursing home.

"I like coming to the camp because it gets me away, and what matters is the music," he said. "What you play, not who you are."

The four-week camp ended Sunday for the 65 students of Excelsus Jazz Institute and Summer Music Camp -- most of whom are not homeless but 75% of whom attend with the help of subsidies. They gave an afternoon closing concert at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in downtown Long Beach.

But as the program wound down, the Sims family was mired in uncertainty about their future. They have lived in Long Beach for years. Four years ago, after Stephen, 65, retired from his job as a manager in the recycling trade, the family moved into a motel. Eighteen months ago, they moved to the Long Beach shelter after Carolyn Sims was laid off from her job as a customer service agent for an office products chain, and her husband underwent cancer treatment.

Over the weekend, Pratt said, a paperwork snafu had delayed the Sims' Section 8 housing vouchers and forced their relocation to a ramshackle Compton shelter where the plumbing is broken and that is too far away for them to visit their father, who is in the final stages of chemotherapy.

But Pratt -- who left her "cushy" gig as a private school music teacher three years ago to found the nonprofit Excelsus Music Collaborators, which runs the camp as well as after-school music programs -- made sure there were rides to Sunday's concert by car or transit bus for all the students and their families from the Long Beach shelter.

The Transitional Living Center is among several shelters run by charities near Bethune Transitional School, a Long Beach Unified campus for homeless children that the district said averages 30 to 35 students. They attend the school, off the Long Beach Freeway, while their housing situations are in flux.

Because so much of their day-to-day existence is uncertain, Pratt said, she and the president of the Junior League of Long Beach teamed to get a few of the shelter youths into the full-time music camp last summer. This summer the number of those students doubled, to six, as did the funding for the program.

But Pratt has only so much seating in her silver SUV, and she dreams of one day having a bus in which to transport four times as many potential music camp students from impoverished backgrounds.

In only a year, a disparate collection of community residents has helped in mostly modest ways -- $10 here, $1,000 there, a few bigger grants -- that added up to make music camp possible for the homeless students and a majority of the others participating. Unsubsidized tuition otherwise runs as high as $900 for a month of full-time camp.

Donors include board members of the $12,000-a-year private Westerly School on the Long Beach-Signal Hill industrial corridor -- on whose pastoral grounds the summer camp is held. A 17-year-old Westerly graduate, Ann Seaver, whose family gave her a trust with which to help others, spent part of the money on tuition for several students.

In the way most communities help each other -- since there are few Bill Gates types, after all -- people gave what they could. Groups stepped in too, such as the Junior League, which started Bethune Transitional School two decades ago and eventually turned it over to Long Beach Unified. League President Christine Manvi said stories of the upheaval endured by the youngest shelter residents moved her to help find a way to introduce the anchoring comfort of music.

Another resource Pratt tapped was Gilmore Music, an independently owned store through which she hired some of her 25 faculty -- not just for the camp but for the year-round after-school programs.

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