It all started 10 years ago when middle school student Helen Camarillo walked up to music executive Tom Sturges at a Christmas party for youths and adults interested in mentoring. She told him that she planned to be president of the United States one day.
As an ice breaker, it worked.
Sturges, a son of legendary screenwriter and director Preston Sturges, asked Helen where she went to school. Foshay Learning Center, she told him, naming a school in a crime-ridden neighborhood in South Los Angeles. Would he like to come to her class for career day?
“That,” said Sturges, “was the beginning of something really amazing.”
For the next six years Sturges worked with the Foshay Learning Center Choir as members wrote and performed songs before ever-growing audiences. The choir’s journey was featured in a documentary that premiered Saturday in West Hollywood as part of the Dances With Films independent film festival. The audience included 150 Foshay students and Sturges, who is now working with a new group of choir members.
Directed by Reginald D. Brown, “Witness to a Dream” chronicles the success of not only the choir but also of the students. In a school district known for high dropout rates, Helen and 30 other sixth-grade choir students graduated from high school in 2003, and 97% were accepted to four-year colleges. Of those, 92% are now college graduates.
Sturges, now vice president of creative affairs at Universal Music Publishing Group, was then the general manager of TWISM Records, Shaquille O’Neal’s label. (The audience erupted in cheers during one scene when a young choir member held up a prized souvenir -- a shoe of O’Neal’s that was almost as big as the student was.)
When Sturges began to work with the choir, some of the students were skeptical that he would stick around. In the documentary, they recalled how he’d arrived in a car that cost more than many of their parents made in a year.
When he suggested writing a song together, they laughed. He persisted, engaging them in a brainstorming session to come up with a theme.
Sturges recounted the scene in the documentary.
“Love,” he said one student shouted.
“What about love?” he responded.
“Love is everywhere,” shouted another.
The song by that title later won a contest to become the theme song of a mentoring program sponsored by Disneyland.
Neither the documentary nor Sturges portrays the choir’s story as outsider-saves-inner-city-school.
When Sturges first visited Foshay in February 1998, the kindergarten through 12th-grade school was already undergoing a transformation. Ten years earlier, it had been an unruly, low-performing campus under threat of state takeover. After 12 years under venerated former principal Howard Lappin, it was designated a California Distinguished School. A longtime partnership with USC provides an enrichment academy and college scholarships.
Also key to the choir’s success were Assistant Principal Regina Boutte -- who is still at Foshay and received as many cheers as O’Neal’s shoe -- and music teacher Vince Womack.
But the stars were the students -- African American, Latino and Vietnamese -- who where shown during their six years in the choir and in the present, looking back.
Choir members describe their jittery nerves and sweating palms when the curtain opened on the Disneyland competition, with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-Gov. Pete Wilson in the audience.
“I never thought that I would sing for the governor,” one student said. “You don’t think like that living in the community we live in.”