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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Finding a home in music

A band teacher and his students first taught kids at a Santa Ana homeless shelter to play, then asked them to join a little gig -- at Carnegie Hall.

May 29, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

THREE Decembers ago, middle school band teacher Ron Wakefield brought his 35-member orchestra to a crowded homeless shelter in Santa Ana. They performed a Christmas concert on a concrete slab in the backyard where some of the families slept.

Tiffany Zoller, a skinny girl with stick-straight blond hair and a crooked smile, listened to them play "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "What Child Is This?"

"I'd give anything if I could do that," said Tiffany, then 9.

Wakefield, a teacher at North Park Middle School in Pico Rivera, was so moved by Tiffany's comment that he began buying new musical instruments for the shelter's children, spending $800 of his own money. He also rounded up volunteers from his band to tutor the children weekly.

The Isaiah House Music Club was born. This year, the Music Club made Wakefield, 50, proud beyond expectation, in a concert setting leagues from the shelter's backyard.

*

Isaiah House, where Tiffany lives with more than 120 other homeless residents, is a California craftsman bungalow on a residential street lined with camphor trees. It is the last resort for the downtrodden. Each night, the privately funded house overflows with homeless mothers and children who can't afford rent at seedy motels or who have overstayed their welcome at short-term shelters. At Isaiah House they can stay as long as they want.

The residents share two bathrooms, eat communal meals on paper plates in the backyard and wear layers of donated clothing to protect them from the evening chill when they bed down. Families with infants and toddlers sleep inside on thin foam pads on the hardwood floors in the furniture-less living room, dining room and foyer. Those with older children sleep in the backyard, using pads, blankets and tarps to create nests on wooden benches, picnic tables or the concrete.

"When you find you can't borrow another dollar, you end up here," said Dwight Smith, who with his wife, Leia, runs the Catholic Worker shelter. "It's scary to live in a shelter. All these kids feel trapped. After a year or two here, they feel they have no future."

THE first visits by the North Park volunteers -- Wakefield, his current students and a former student -- were jarring. Adults, virtually all of whom were mothers crammed into tight quarters, were frustrated by their problems and bickered incessantly. One boy lay on the floor barking. A shy girl with a speech impediment hid. Some adolescents, teased for joining the band, balked at rehearsing. Two flutes were stolen. Neighbors called police when the ragtag band practiced on the front lawn.

The parents of some shelter children were in jail. The transient nature of homelessness meant that dozens of children filtered through the band. Some disappeared for weeks at a time, often to another shelter or motel, only to return. One girl snapped her clarinet in half after her father failed to visit on her birthday.

"We end up living through many of their families' tragedies," Wakefield said.

But week after week, the volunteers, just adolescents themselves, returned.

They taught the children how to read music and to understand rhythm. Their students learned to play notes, then measures, then phrases, then entire compositions. The Isaiah House Music Club members practiced on their own nearly every day. They started with "Hot Cross Buns" and worked their way through more challenging works, such as "Mount Vernon March." After about 18 months, the band could make it through "Pieta," their most difficult piece, without tripping over a note.

Not only had the children grown musically, they had matured emotionally.

"When we [first] came, they gave us attitude," said volunteer Beatriz Mercado, 12, who plays the flute.

"Now they have patience," said Inez Franco, 13, a North Park clarinetist.

DURING a recent rehearsal, Inez helped Tiffany practice scales. A clarinet case, dotted with pink and purple hearts and stenciled with her nickname, Tiffers, sat at their feet. Her mother, Karol Zoller, said she and her four children had lived at her grandparents' house in Corona until the grandparents died three years ago. The family has been ricocheting between motels and shelters ever since, with the music club one of the few constants in Tiffany's life.

"It's just something I look forward to every week," Tiffany said.

Jasmine Bush, a 12-year-old, used to keep to herself. But she learned to play the saxophone, and her self-confidence blossomed.

During a recent rehearsal, her laughter rose above the cacophony of instruments being practiced in various nooks of the shelter before she played a rich, soulful "Silent Night."

"The first time it was hard," Jasmine said. "But then it started to be easy."

Jasmine's mother can see the changes in her daughter in the two years since they lost their house in Monrovia and moved into Isaiah House.

When they arrived at the shelter, Jasmine used to cry and complain.

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