Finding a home in music
THREE Decembers ago, middle school band teacher Ron Wakefield brought his 35-member orchestra to a crowded homeless shelter in Santa Ana. They performed a Christmas concert on a concrete slab in the backyard where some of the families slept.
Tiffany Zoller, a skinny girl with stick-straight blond hair and a crooked smile, listened to them play “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “What Child Is This?”
“I’d give anything if I could do that,” said Tiffany, then 9.
Wakefield, a teacher at North Park Middle School in Pico Rivera, was so moved by Tiffany’s comment that he began buying new musical instruments for the shelter’s children, spending $800 of his own money. He also rounded up volunteers from his band to tutor the children weekly.
The Isaiah House Music Club was born. This year, the Music Club made Wakefield, 50, proud beyond expectation, in a concert setting leagues from the shelter’s backyard.
Isaiah House, where Tiffany lives with more than 120 other homeless residents, is a California craftsman bungalow on a residential street lined with camphor trees. It is the last resort for the downtrodden. Each night, the privately funded house overflows with homeless mothers and children who can’t afford rent at seedy motels or who have overstayed their welcome at short-term shelters. At Isaiah House they can stay as long as they want.
The residents share two bathrooms, eat communal meals on paper plates in the backyard and wear layers of donated clothing to protect them from the evening chill when they bed down. Families with infants and toddlers sleep inside on thin foam pads on the hardwood floors in the furniture-less living room, dining room and foyer. Those with older children sleep in the backyard, using pads, blankets and tarps to create nests on wooden benches, picnic tables or the concrete.
“When you find you can’t borrow another dollar, you end up here,” said Dwight Smith, who with his wife, Leia, runs the Catholic Worker shelter. “It’s scary to live in a shelter. All these kids feel trapped. After a year or two here, they feel they have no future.”
THE first visits by the North Park volunteers -- Wakefield, his current students and a former student -- were jarring. Adults, virtually all of whom were mothers crammed into tight quarters, were frustrated by their problems and bickered incessantly. One boy lay on the floor barking. A shy girl with a speech impediment hid. Some adolescents, teased for joining the band, balked at rehearsing. Two flutes were stolen. Neighbors called police when the ragtag band practiced on the front lawn.
The parents of some shelter children were in jail. The transient nature of homelessness meant that dozens of children filtered through the band. Some disappeared for weeks at a time, often to another shelter or motel, only to return. One girl snapped her clarinet in half after her father failed to visit on her birthday.
“We end up living through many of their families’ tragedies,” Wakefield said.
But week after week, the volunteers, just adolescents themselves, returned.
They taught the children how to read music and to understand rhythm. Their students learned to play notes, then measures, then phrases, then entire compositions. The Isaiah House Music Club members practiced on their own nearly every day. They started with “Hot Cross Buns” and worked their way through more challenging works, such as “Mount Vernon March.” After about 18 months, the band could make it through “Pieta,” their most difficult piece, without tripping over a note.
Not only had the children grown musically, they had matured emotionally.
“When we [first] came, they gave us attitude,” said volunteer Beatriz Mercado, 12, who plays the flute.
“Now they have patience,” said Inez Franco, 13, a North Park clarinetist.
DURING a recent rehearsal, Inez helped Tiffany practice scales. A clarinet case, dotted with pink and purple hearts and stenciled with her nickname, Tiffers, sat at their feet. Her mother, Karol Zoller, said she and her four children had lived at her grandparents’ house in Corona until the grandparents died three years ago. The family has been ricocheting between motels and shelters ever since, with the music club one of the few constants in Tiffany’s life.
“It’s just something I look forward to every week,” Tiffany said.
Jasmine Bush, a 12-year-old, used to keep to herself. But she learned to play the saxophone, and her self-confidence blossomed.
During a recent rehearsal, her laughter rose above the cacophony of instruments being practiced in various nooks of the shelter before she played a rich, soulful “Silent Night.”
“The first time it was hard,” Jasmine said. “But then it started to be easy.”
Jasmine’s mother can see the changes in her daughter in the two years since they lost their house in Monrovia and moved into Isaiah House.
When they arrived at the shelter, Jasmine used to cry and complain.
“She was depressed because we were here, " said her mother, Shelby Jimeson, who works nights as a Disneyland custodian and is on a waiting list for subsidized housing. “When the band comes, they go and have fun. They also learn. It makes me happy to see her happy, doing something that she enjoys.”
The band is about more than music, Wakefield and other volunteers said. It’s about giving the children a constant in their unstable lives.
“When I make promises to ... the kids, I’ve kept the promises,” Wakefield said. “They have this treasure in their hearts forever. They’ve learned there are people in this world that can be trusted, that can be counted on.”
THE North Park students, who come from the working-class city of Pico Rivera, bonded with their homeless charges. When they sit side by side in front of a music stand, they joke, trade stories and share secrets. The North Park students have helped in other ways -- one night, when no volunteers showed up to make dinner, four girls got to work in the kitchen, cooking, serving and cleaning up for more than 100 people.
The North Park band had a long-standing invitation to play this April at Carnegie Hall from the National Band and Orchestra Festival, a performance of student musicians from around the country. The band invited six of their homeless friends, most of whom had never heard of Carnegie Hall, to join them.
Serena and Jesse Escamilla’s mother, Renee Alto, didn’t believe it when she heard her children would be visiting New York.
“I knew they were going over there to do something I could never be able to do, and I’m very proud,” she said.
The six-day trip cost about $2,000 per child and was funded by donations from community members, band parents and North Park students, who sold snack foods to help raise money.
It was the first time any of the Isaiah House children had flown.
“It was really scary,” said Serena, 11, a flutist. “We were really high above the clouds.”
The children passed the time dozing, chatting, staring out the windows and watching “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the recent Will Smith movie about a single father grappling with homelessness.
After they landed in Newark, N.J., they took a charter bus into New York. They bunked four and five to a room at a midtown Manhattan hotel, visited the Statue of Liberty and Times Square and took carriage rides in Central Park.
The trip was the first time the Isaiah House children, ages 10 to 14, had been separated from their mothers.
“I never went to New York before,” Jasmine said. “It made me excited, but I was homesick too.”
The trip was capped by the Friday evening performance at Carnegie Hall. After all the boys donned tuxedos and the girls put on black gowns and cubic zirconia earrings -- all paid for by donations and theirs to keep -- they ventured to the green room beneath the stage, tuned their instruments and rehearsed.
“I was thinking I was going to mess up really bad and make us sound horrible,” said Serena’s brother Jesse, 14, who plays the trumpet.
The North Park band and the Isaiah House Music Club -- Tiffany, Jasmine, Jesse, Serena, Anthony Partee and Tiffany’s younger brother Brandon -- stepped onto the stage. They performed together for nearly an hour under spotlights in front of hundreds of people. Midway through the performance, the six Isaiah House children slipped from their places in the band and quietly filled seats at the front of the ensemble.
“I felt like all scared, like I was nervous,” Serena said. “My heart was beating really fast.”
Wakefield hoisted his baton, and the Isaiah House children raised their instruments. Backed by a couple of their North Park tutors, they launched into “Pieta” by Joseph Lawson. The composition begins dolefully, grows calm, then ends in joy and triumph.
When they finished, Wakefield held back tears.
“There are no words to describe that beautiful joy and love that was on that stage,” he said. “Some things are best unspoken.”