You can see the Hollywood sign from just about anywhere on the campus. Only a few miles away, it floats against a rippling ridgeline and a blue sky, a legendary symbol of glamor and riches that has inspired countless youths to pursue their lofty dreams.
But for most of the inhabitants of the neighborhood surrounding Apex Academy High School in East Hollywood, that sign might as well be on the moon. This is not the Hollywood of nightclubs and swank eateries and black-clad hipsters; it's another Hollywood, not as well-known or publicized, of gangbangers and teenage pregnancies and deportation hearings, of families torn and struggling, not to score their own reality show, but simply to survive intact to face another tough day.
Yet on Tuesday, June 21st, Apex will roll out the red carpet (literally), fire up the confetti cannons, and launch its very first graduating class to the thunderous applause of students who once barely dared to dream and who are now succeeding, in proverbial Hollywood parlance, "against all odds." This is a ceremony and a celebration for the entire community, to insist that everyone deserves a dream and the opportunity to create it.
And because of the fierce dedication of Alfonso Paz, the school's head counselor, and a selfless fairy godmother of an event planner who prefers to remain anonymous, the stripped-down and simple affair with coffee and cookies that a non-existent budget permitted has been transformed into a red-carpet event worthy of Hollywood's most notable stars.
Make no mistake -- these kids are stars. If persistence, talent, and dogged hard work in the face of nearly insuperable obstacles qualifies one for stardom, these students get billing above the title. Their stories read like a script right out of the mailroom at ICM; coming out of broken homes, some enduring abuse, others struggling with the allure of gangs, surrounded by drug use and crippling poverty, these are the kids that the "system" could find no place for. Their futures seemed to be pre-ordained and unrelentingly bleak; the first act ends with drugging, dropping out and despair.
But like an R-rated Bing Crosby flick, at the beginning of the second act along comes Apex Academy High School, the passionate undertaking of Principal Cesar Lopez and Mr. Paz. And yes, there are setbacks and losses and those who fall by the wayside, as in all heartwarming and heart-breaking tales of life, but through it all there are the requisite trials and tears and triumphs.
And come next Tuesday, the story will have its "Hollywood ending" for the very first graduating class of Apex High. Forty proud students will walk the red carpet, more than half of them on their way to a four-year college.
Thanks to the fairy godmother's event organizing talents and persuasive manner, the evening will be first-class all the way. Professional stylists will be on hand, courtesy of the Aveda Institute, to assist the ladies with their make-up and hair, and a professional photographer, Debbie LeFever, will be shooting the graduates in front of a donated limousine complete with chauffeur (courtesy of Mosaic Global Transportation). Swag bags will await, filled with goodies from generous contributors: t-shirts, DVDs and movie posters from Fox and Paramount; theatre tickets from the Geffen and inspirational card decks and books from Hayhouse Publishing; Fiji Water, POMx bars & Wonderful pistachios from Lynda Resnick; Karen Ard jewelry, Lisa Carrier candles, Poi Wear t-shirts, and hair products from Aveda and Sally Hershberger; and from Variety Children's Charity, Academy Award posters and statuettes.
And instead of coffee and store-bought cookies, there will be a dazzling culinary spread featuring platters from 44 Blue Productions and handmade sweets from a celebrity private chef.
As the final fade begins, the camera will pan across the faces of a community that has been given hope and respect and dreams, by people who believe that what matters in life is giving to others. And though the words "The End" will float there for a moment, for these students and all the many students who learn and grow at Apex High, this is only the beginning...
Oh, by the way, I understand there's still a little room in those swag bags if you'd like to slip in a little something; and the buffet could always use another platter or two -- you know how teenagers are with free food!