A song and a spark

Brooke Allen was a late talker who blossomed into a young vocalist.

Despite demonstrating speech delays as a toddler, the Newport Beach resident couldn't wait to turn 5 — the minimum age requirement for Young Singers of Orange County — so she could be just like her older sister, Bailey.

Now 7 and 12, respectively, the two are enthusiastic members of the choir, which offers music education and performing opportunities for youths across the county.

"It was really nice to see [Brooke] sing and develop that confidence," said Lauren Allen, the girls' mother. "Now you wouldn't ever know that she started speaking late.

"Bailey is shy, but when she's up on stage, it's like she's another person. So it's been a really good outlet for them to express themselves, feel comfortable and sing for other people and make them smile."

On Jan. 11, the sisters will join the choir as it partners with Chapman University's a capella ensemble SoundCheck. The day will begin with a two-hour workshop followed by lunch and a campus tour, which Young Singers' co-directors Issy Leustig of Fountain Valley and Sophie Smith of Newport Beach hope will encourage older students to seriously investigate a college education. Both groups will take the stage at 4 p.m. for a concert benefiting YSOC.

Samantha Smith, Sophie's older sister, started YSOC as her senior project at the now-defunct Orange Coast Middle College High School in September 2009. It developed into a nonprofit later that year. Now it is a reputed program for children that focuses on music, self-esteem and public service, and it recently won first place at the TEDx Orange Coast Teen Challenge.

"I was excited to introduce the world of music to kids, and I'd also recognized a long time ago that you could give back to the community in a number of ways, even just by singing a song," said Samantha Smith, 21, who is now a senior at Vassar College. "I was frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm from elementary schools and the school district for the after-school enrichment program I was teaching for.

"I was also frustrated by fellow high school students who complained about fulfilling the community service requirement to graduate high school, and I vowed to try and show how cool it could be to as many kids as possible so they could carry that mentality for the rest of their lives."

And it worked.

Youths from Yorba Linda, Santa Ana and elsewhere, who have faced cuts in their schools' arts courses or want to build upon their music education, have found their way to YSOC. Together, they've performed at elderly care centers, hospitals and food drives, pursuing their interests while learning that money isn't a prerequisite to contributing to society.

YSOC members were at Costa Mesa City Hall's Snoopy House on Dec. 23 to perform Christmas songs and sell hot chocolate and cider. The group was easy to notice and not only because each person wore a matching green shirt. The sense of camaraderie was palpable as some stood with arms linked, others shared a laugh and the younger girls sat on the laps of or stared up adoringly at their older counterparts.

Kendall Whitney-Vazquez, 14, and her sisters Hadley, 10, and Rilyn, 5, and brother, Curran, 12 — the choral group's only boy — are recent additions. The siblings are home-schooled, so YSOC has been a vital source of friendship and growth.

"They make it a lot of fun," Kendall said. "It's such a wonderful atmosphere to be in because they're really supportive."

The overall experience is further enhanced by the encouragement of members to offer input about the songs and even the accompanying hand motions, Hadley remarked.

"It's important to help people and help kids when they don't have homes or food," Rilyn chimed in, agreeing with her sisters about the importance of generosity and getting firsthand exposure to all sorts of situations. "At the retirement center, [some people] said, 'Can you come again?' or 'Can you stay with me?' We went [to the residents] and hugged everybody."

Having grown in scope, YSOC is also adding a master class program. Professional musicians from around Orange County will be invited to talk to the singers so they can learn about different genres and see that a hobby today could one day become a full-time career. Toward this end, it has also teamed up with a capella groups from Yale and Brown universities, USC and UCLA.

According to Dominique Stewart, president of SoundCheck, the singing group has earned a following on campus. It was a desire to reach out to the community that brought it face-to-face with YSOC.

"Music has changed all of our lives in some fashion or another," Stewart said. "We wanted to make sure it can do the same for kids like them as well."

In past years, YSOC has earned between $500 and $1,000 at such fundraisers and up to $2,000 at shows assisting relief efforts in Haiti and the Philippines as well as the American Cancer Society. The choir hopes to raise at least $1,000 at the upcoming event.

"YSOC is the highlight of my week, and I have found that as I teach the children, my self-confidence has improved, along with my confidence in singing and public speaking," Sophie said. "The greatest satisfaction, however, comes from seeing that same self-confidence evolve in a child, who came in clinging to their parent and who now has no fear performing on a stage with bright lights and a microphone."

If You Go

What: SoundCheck and Young Singers of Orange County concert

Where: Chapman University's Irvine Lecture Hall, 1 University Drive, Orange

When: 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 11

Cost: Advance purchase on YSOC website: $10; premium seating $15; children and students $5. At the door: adults $15; children and students $10; Chapman students $5

Information: http://www.youngsingersoc.org, youngsingersOC@gmail.com or (949) 463 6691

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