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Singing the Praises of a Long Partnership

The current Foshay Learning Center Choir performs before the showing of the documentary Witness to a Dream.

Photo/Dietmar Quistorf

When a high-powered music executive was invited to tell a South Los Angeles school about his career, it was supposed to be a one-hour appointment.

Instead it turned into a 10-year association captured in the documentary Witness to a Dream, now making the rounds of the Southern California film festival circuit.

The film tells the true story of a project between mentor Tom Sturges, an executive vice president at the Universal Music Publishing Group, and a group of Foshay Learning Center students.

Last month, more than a dozen participants in the film � including students, Sturges, filmmaker Reginald Brown and Foshay administrators � reunited for a screening with hundreds of others at the USC Galen Center Founders Room.

More than a story about musical ability, the movie conveys what can happen when a few people make a commitment to helping youngsters succeed.

From 1997 to 2007, the Foshay Learning Center Choir performed for more than 50,000 people, including the governor of California and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Every member of the choir graduated from high school and 97 percent of the singers were accepted to four-year colleges. More than 90 percent have since graduated from college.

“One of those children will do something amazing,” Sturges proclaimed.

As the film begins in 1997, a precocious seventh-grader introduces herself: “Hello, my name is Helen Carrillo and I am going to be the first Latina president of the United States.”

The youngster eventually introduced herself to Sturges at a Christmas mixer, where he gave her his card and said, “Call me.”

Naturally, she called.

“He told us everybody could write music, though not everybody would be famous,” said Carrillo, now 23. “But music is inside all of us.”

Sturges, the son of renowned writer Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), was familiar with old Hollywood, yet he was making records with Shaquille O’Neal at the time. On the first day of the partnership, he challenged the youngsters to write a song that could earn them a trip to Disneyland.

Over the next few months, he helped them write the song “Love Is Everywhere.” Then they traveled throughout Southern California performing that and other songs they wrote together.

“Seeing the group once, I just wanted to go back,” said Sturges, who still mentors the Foshay choir. “The person who just shows up for a few minutes and makes a speech doesn’t really impact the child.”

Carrillo, now an assistant athletic coordinator and cheerleading coach at Gertz-Ressler High School in South Los Angeles, saw the movie for the first time at the Galen Center.

“Tom could have broken it off, but he stuck around and showed us amazing things,” Carrillo said.

It’s hard for Carrillo to explain the impact Sturges made on the students. After all, many of them were already part of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a challenging college preparatory course that requires students to attend after-school and Saturday classes.

“We knew that we were going to college and our parents knew that it was important � that’s why I was in the NAI,” Carrillo said. “But we didn’t know anyone who had a career or went to college. My parents didn’t have aspirations: Their job was about money. (Tom) wasn’t our teacher or getting paid by the school. When he told us things, he was just trying to help us out.”

The movie and the mentoring program now are touching another generation at Foshay. Nearly every time there is a screening, assistant principal Regina Boutte takes a busload of students to the theatre.

“It’s very emotional and very real for them,” Boutte said. “They saw that some of those kids made it to USC. And they could see how long Tom has been around.”

Foshay, a K-12 public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is a member of the USC Family of Schools, a program that provides educational, cultural and development opportunities to more than 13,000 youngsters in 10 schools.

Boutte gives a lot of credit to the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which promises a full 4.5-year financial package to USC for students who complete the program and meet the university’s competitive admission requirements.

“It is because of USC’s partnership that our kids are used to this culture,” said Boutte, referring to the commitment it takes to be part of activities such as the choir and the Neighborhood Initiative.

Meanwhile, Carrillo has modified her dreams. She now plans to work at UNICEF and is nearing college graduation, a goal she put off to work full time after her father became ill.

“This is what we took from it � ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Carillo said. “I still can’t get over the fact I met Colin Powell. When we get together (with former classmates), we still talk about it.”

Singing the Praises of a Long Partnership

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