Election season and Obama came to Los Angeles. At 4:45 a.m. 44 inner city high school kids boarded a school bus, on time and wide-awake, to meet the President. Only a 15-minute ride to the USC campus, but they had to go super-early on the LA Unified School District bus before its regular run.
As their 1 p.m. show-time approached, they lined up near the stage to get Witness to a Dream T-shirts. These tees got them so close to the action that other folks were pleading for them. The crowd did not realize this was a special group.
The kids were led by their Pied Piper, Tom Sturges. He writes songs with them and leads them in a choir. Like the charismatic character in the Grimm's fairy tale, he captivates children with music.
The Pied Piper of Hamlin comes from the oral tradition and takes place in The Middle Ages. Medieval fairy tales still fit our lives today. The details may not be exact, but you can find a character who informs your life.
The kids in the choir live in a community plagued with rats, winos, graffiti and drug addicts. Sturges inspires with music and teaches social skills. Children get to a better place. What a thrill for the choir to sing their song Shine and shake the President's hand.
Tom Sturges is Executive Vice President and Head of Creative at Universal Music Publishing. He was pulling from their artists for the Obama rally -- Jamie Foxx to emcee and Ozomatli to perform. And he also booked his choir.
Since 1997 Tom visits Foshay Learning Center weekly. I edited the documentary Witness to a Dream, directed by filmmaker Reginald Brown, which tells the story of the first choir Sturges mentored. That group grew up. Nearly all graduated from college. Watch a clip of the movie. The documentary played in festivals as far away as the Bahamas, where schools have similar problems.
The kids in the first choir entered the school at a perfect time. Then-principal Howard Lapin teamed with his teachers to revamp Foshay Junior High into a K-12 school, to nurture kids all the way through if they wanted to stay. USC started the Neighborhood Academic Initiative to let some students take half their classes at the college. Governor Pete Wilson dispatched mentors from the business world into schools in forgotten communities. The Pied Piper was invited for career day and just kept coming. Why mentor just one kid when you can mentor a whole choir?
What made Sturges take on this group? And then another choir after the first one graduated? He knew what it was like to be missing something growing up. His extraordinary father, writer-director Preston Sturges, died when Tom was three. His dad gave the world a legacy of quirky films. The Great McGinty pokes fun at politics. If you have not seen his movies, add them to your Netflix queue.
It's tough to follow a parent who is legendary. Even tougher not to have any direct help from the famous dad. Preston Sturges sank his wealth in a nightclub that failed and left no money. But he left a talented toddler he called Tom Tom.
Daddy would have been proud of him. Young Sturges studied music and worked his way up to music biz executive. He has received over 20 commendations for his volunteer work. Inheriting Dad's turn of a phrase, he wrote a book on raising kids, Parking Lot Rules and 75 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Children. He has three of his own.
At-risk kids need Pied Pipers. Remember, Hamlin was a rat-infested place. Foshay is an oasis in a run-down neighborhood. The staff is smart enough to welcome outside help. The school is lucky enough to still have a music teacher, actually a rather remarkable one. Foshay's Vince Womack earlier this year won the prestigious Mr. Holland's Opus Award, given to teachers who are super-talented musicians but dedicate their careers to teaching. Womack molds stellar band and jazz musicians. He also rehearses Tom's choir.
Regina Boutté keeps the Sturges enterprise in line with school rules, plus wrangles kids, shirts, lunches, and transportation. Everyone, even the Mayor, knows Ms. Boutté. She was the can-do Oprah Winfrey of LAUSD, until she had to retire last June when the school went off the year-round calendar and needed fewer administrators. Since Tom's first day she was the Assistant Principal at Foshay. No one could believe beloved Boutté was leaving. Now she is a volunteer and mentors with Tom to insure logistics happen. How amazing is that? Hundreds of thousands came to USC to see Obama, but these kids performed for President Obama. They lifted spirits and felt important. Pied Piper Tom Sturges has led the children to happily-ever-after.
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