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World of Hurt : Homeless Children Have the Formula for Making Repairs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My house is in a shelter. It is fun. It is the color of pink. It has grass and the grass is green. It has a playground where I can run around a lot.

It is good to have a place to live.

But it has a whole bunch of rooms. Too many rooms. And too many people peer at me through the cracks from their half-opened doors.

In these eyes, I see what I have lost. Nadia Balcazar, 9; Resident of the St. Vincent de Paul / Joan Kroc Center for the homeless

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Six months ago, Nadia Balcazar was a painfully shy, introverted 9-year-old living in the St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center for the homeless.

She still lives in the shelter, but those who know this tall girl with long dark hair and dark sensitive eyes say she is different now. She smiles, she jokes, she seems proud.

There is a reason for the change.

This weekend she will dance, do magic tricks and recite her own writings alongside more than 40 other homeless children and about a half-dozen needy youth from homes in Southeast San Diego. The children range from ages 4-16.

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It’s all part of YO!, Youth Onstage, an arts outreach program sponsored by the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company in cooperation with the St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center.

The show, written and performed by children, is called “2000 Bound” or “The World is Broken--We Can Fix It.” A benefit performance to support the program will be given at 8 p.m. today, followed by a holiday reception for the children. An additional show will be performed at 2 p.m. Saturday. All performances are at the Gaslamp’s Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre.

The work is divided into three segments; in the first, the children talk about their lives, their environment and why they think the world is broken. In the second, they talk about how they hope to fix the world, and, in the last, they dance and sing as they celebrate their special place in the world.

“It feels exciting because it feels like you’re a star,” said a breathless Nadia during a rehearsal break Tuesday night. She nodded, glowing, when asked if the program had changed her life.

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“Before, I felt I was by myself. I felt I had no friends because I didn’t do anything,” she said, smiling.

Called away by her director, she scampered back on stage to practice making silver hoops appear and disappear with magician Michael Johnson.

YO! began six months ago, at a time, ironically, when the Gaslamp was in a financial crisis and itself seemed on the verge of becoming homeless.

Kit Goldman, then producing director of the theater and currently its founding director, got the idea for the program from a woman who worked for the Gaslamp while she was also a resident of the shelter.

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Goldman met with Bonnie Starr, children’s services program manager at the shelter. Starr came up with the idea of merging the Gaslamp program with St. Vincent de Paul’s own program, run by Meredythe Dee Winter. Beginning last June, under Winter’s supervision, the children took lessons each weekend at both the theater and shelter with writer Scott Rubsam, dancers Betzi Roe and Wendy Cochran and artist Brenda DeFlanders. Over the past six months the show, written by the kids, began to take shape.

At a chaotic, but high-spirited rehearsal at the Hahn on Tuesday, the instructors, all of whom are used to working with professionals, talked about the challenge of putting this show together.

Because the children never knew how long they would be at the shelter, many who started with the program dropped out long before opening night. Nadia, her good friend Sterling Mack, 9, and a handful of others--mostly from Southeast San Diego--are among the few who have remained with the show from its beginning.

Because the children’s lives are so uncertain, it also has been hard to get them to focus on the task at hand, or even remember what they have learned from week to week.

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But, as opening night approached, both the instructors and the children seemed happy, if exhausted, by the process.

“We’re working with kids whose lives are very stressful, and they don’t know what’s happening day to day,” Winter said.

“But I know we will make an impact on their lives. They look forward to this every weekend. When they haven’t seen us for a while, they hug us.

“I know they make an impact on my life.”

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Starr has been working with homeless children in a variety of programs over the past 4 1/2 years. She said this program stands out.

“They succeed at something. They succeed at something creative. They are very embarrassed to be homeless. Their parents have no self-esteem, and this gives them something to hang onto. It brings them out of the shelter and helps them learn to be themselves.”

Rubsam, the kids’ writing instructor, said that for him the project’s worth was symbolized by the changes in Nadia.

“When she came six months ago, she was very withdrawn, would rarely speak, wouldn’t do a thing. For me the program is all about her. When I see her, she has evolved into seeming to have a somewhat better life. From that respect the program is truly incredible.”

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The children who have been in the program longest seem the most at ease with the process.

While Nadia, for example, still appears somewhat tentative, self-confidence bubbled forth from Krystina Brown, 9, Katy Sprague, 10 and Tancy Alston, 10, all children from Southeast San Diego with whom Winter has been working for the past few years.

The three were so excited, they could barely take turns talking about the songs they had written, the tricks they had learned, their excitement at having met football player Rosey Grier and actress Pam Grier (both members of the YO! Advisory Board) and remembering the ice cream and dinner they got when they met the mayor.

“I’ve seen an enormous change in all of them over the past six months,” Rubsam said.

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“Each week, they would be different. They would have very little focus and they have an enormous amount of reserves.”

Rubsam helped them tap into those reserves by encouraging them to tell him about their lives. He said one of the children crystallized the focus of the program, saying, “the world is broken,” a phrase that eventually became the title of the show.

Some of the children who’ve left still haunt the show through words they have written; those words are now recited by new faces.

One girl wrote: “My mother left our home last night. She left me. I watched her walk down the front steps. Gone forever. She isn’t coming back. I know that. I cried. My brother and sisters cried. Even my dad cried. I have never seen my dad cry before. He tells us that she is coming back. It is okay that my father lies to me.”

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Another girl told of missing her father: “Every night I meet my father in my dreams, and some nights I can hardly wait to fall asleep. My mother says I sleep way too much. I wonder.”

Still another wrote: “I went to the mall and bought some new clothes and shoes. My mother doesn’t have enough money for clothes for all of us. This year it is my turn. And it is fun. I know I will not have new clothes for many many years.

“My little sister looks sad. I know she would like to have something new. But it isn’t her turn. When I grow up, I will have all the money I want. No one around me will ever have to want anything ever again.

“I decided to let my sister wear my new shoes even through they are too big for her and don’t really fit. The shoes are way too big for her, and so is her smile.”

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The Gaslamp is planning to make this an annual project and is looking for funding for next year. Early next year, $5,000 from the County of San Diego Cable Television Grant Award Program will help pay for Winter to tape part of the show for a children’s television special on the environment.

Performances of “2000 Bound” or “The World is Broken--We Can Fix It” are today at 8 p.m., a benefit for the program with tickets costing $20 each. Additional performance Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults and $2.50 for children under 16. At the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, 444 4th Ave., San Diego, 234-9583.


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