The inspiration behind City Hearts: Kid Say Yes to the Arts began in 1977, with co-founder Sherry Jason, a ballet dancer and attorney working in the LA County Public Defender’s office.
While touring a juvenile detention center, she was captivated by the sound of someone playing Mozart on the piano, said Charles Maceo Thornhill, the nonprofit’s executive director.
She followed the sound until she found a 13-year-old boy in a jumpsuit. She learned that it was his first lesson, and he had picked up the song by ear. But she also learned that he had been convicted of murder and was awaiting placement in a prison for youth.
“What if he had met that piano first? Would life have been different?” said Thornhill. “That’s where the inspiration for City Hearts came from.”
By early 1985, the newly formed organization offered its first classes, beginning with ballet classes in Downtown Los Angeles for public school students and in juvenile centers.
Driven by the idea that arts have the power to rehabilitate youth and lead them to more positive choices, for many years, City Hearts provided classes to incarcerated youth, foster youth and youth living in homeless shelters.
Nowadays, the nonprofit focuses on working with underserved youth in public schools, both as an after-school activity and through in-school classes.
With the goal of providing holistic arts education and meaningful experiences, the organization now serves K-12 youth in Long Beach and across LA County, with hopes of expanding further, Thornhill said.
During the 2021 to 2022 school year, around 600 youth were served in eight participating schools and three school districts, including Long Beach Unified.
While every teacher is a working artist, at City Hearts, it’s about more than just the craft, Thornhill said.
For Thornhill, who taught acting and Shakespeare for over a decade with City Hearts prior to becoming executive director, there were some days when no one even touched a script—and would instead just talk, he said.
“We want students experiencing you as a person: your temperament, your love, your encouragement, your kindness, your patience, your ability to just be cool, calm and collected,” Thornhill said. “Not just, ‘This teacher knows a lot about acting,’ or, ‘This teacher knows a lot about dance,’ but it’s just as meaningful to a kid to be like, ‘Wow, this teacher listens to me when I have a problem.’”
As a newly appointed executive director, Thornhill is evaluating what can be implemented into City Hearts programming to address current needs, such as challenges with moving back to in-person learning, he said.
“The students are still learning how to readjust to being in-person socially, and that has had an impact on how classes can flow,” Thornhill said. “We try to be sensitive to that—as an adult, we experienced what COVID was like, it was super isolating, but I can just imagine what students felt, figuring out how to socialize and then you add, ‘Hey, be vulnerable and express yourself creatively in our class,’—it’s a lot to ask.”
But the benefits of arts education are apparent for the youth participants of City Hearts, Thornhill said.
“Art can cause you to be reflective, it causes you to be observant, it causes you to be empathetic, it calls for you to be vulnerable, to be brave, it causes you to have conversations like you normally don’t have,” Thornhill said.
Plus, the talent of many of the youth has “blown people out of the water,” Thornhill said, particularly during the organization’s performances, which pre-pandemic, gathered together students from every participating school.
Within the next year or two, Thornhill hopes to resume the performances, pandemic permitting.
“We’d have hundreds of people there to watch and support and affirm students from all over LA and beyond, saying, ‘This is important. We support your work. We encourage you to keep going, because the work you’re doing is important, and we see you,’” Thornhill said. “Bringing communities together is really important.”
While high schools do offer arts classes, they are not always accessible to all students, and they are typically more general courses, explained Thornhill.
Through City Hearts, students have an opportunity to be exposed to art forms they normally wouldn’t experience, such as slam poetry, hip-hop dance or printmaking, Thornhill said.
“Have we had kids who have taken these classes and gone on and done big things artistically? Of course we have,” Thornhill said. “But there’s also the kids who are super shy and don’t say anything when you first meet them, and at the end of the year, they’re doing this dance piece, or the scene or this monologue, and they’re loud, and they’re confident.”
“It gives you permission to believe in yourself,” Thornhill said. “We’re all insecure . . . (but art) forces you to really just let go of a lot of fear.”