WHO SHE IS: As artistic director of Saint Joseph Ballet, an after-school program for disadvantaged children, Melanie Rios Glaser works with students who have always felt the strain of economic hardship; some even shoulder the burden of managing family finances. But at the Santa Ana academy, Glaser's 400-plus pupils (ages 9 to 19) can shed their worries. They receive ballet training and learn about movement, performing spirals and hinges in professional-grade theaters. "The philosophy was that, because it's for low-income youth, if they had the best possible facilities, then their spirits would soar," says Rios, a 37-year-old Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer who has been with Saint Joseph Ballet since 1999.
WHAT'S SAID ABOUT HER: "She works beautifully with young people," says Donald McKayle, a UC Irvine dance professor who has choreographed for the students. "Rather than being imposing, she teaches and they rise to the occasion."
WHAT'S NEW: The nonsectarian academy, founded in 1983 by former nun Beth Burns, recently completed a two-year renovation. The upgrades include two studios, which can be converted into a theater, and a community center for costume-making. There's also an education center where the students receive tutoring.
WHY IT MATTERS: Since Saint Joseph Ballet created a college scholarship program in 1998, most of its graduates have gone on to higher education. (To earn a scholarship, the kids must maintain a 2.5 GPA and participate in the dance program all four years of high school.)
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Rios encourages benefactors to "come get to know us." On Feb. 22 and 23, the nonprofit--funded mostly by private grants and donations (www.saintjosephballet.org)--will host a concert featuring up-and-coming choreographers. And this spring, its annual recital will showcase students' best work at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. "When you give them a task, they'll come back with noncliched, creative responses," Rios says. "They've broken through the mold of imitating."