Listening to a group of teenagers discussing songs that speak to them doesn’t sound like much of a story. That is, until you peel back a layer and find out these adolescents, members of the AHA! (Attitude, Harmony, Achievement) Sing it Out program, have overcome adversity and found their voice through music.
None is a professional singer; in fact, many have never sung before joining this program, designed to provide mentorship, meaning, structure and support to vulnerable teens.
On the day I visited the group, which meets once a week for two hours, they were seated in a circle in the meeting room of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. Though the topic would eventually turn to the songs they were selecting for their big performance on May 18 at Deckers Outdoor Corp.’s new headquarters, they first went around the room discussing their “thorns” and “roses.”
“I got an A+ on a paper,” shared one 16-year-old to claps and cheers. “I’m turning 18 tomorrow!” chimed in another, to more applause.
The camaraderie is palpable, and thanks to the expert guidance of AHA!’s co-founders, Dr. Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman, both licensed psychotherapists, educators and family counselors, the students are able to share much more than their highs and lows. Several admitted to feelings of fear, anxiety and pain.
Founded 15 years ago, AHA! serves more than 2,000 teens and their families throughout Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria, with in-school, after-school and summer programs that provide mentorship and support in a powerful, positive environment. The aim of AHA! is to create a community of socially and emotionally intelligent adolescents who are committed to compassion, character, positive creative expression, and the celebration of diversity. All programs are funded by private donations and no family is turned away for lack of funds.
AHA!’s biggest event of the year — the May 18 Sing It Out performance — represents the culmination of 12 teens’ journeys. Students enrolled in the AHA! program apply for the chance to participate in Sing It Out as space is limited and spots are filled based on need, commitment and diversity.
“It’s a chance for students to take the stage and shine in their new sense of self,” says Freed, who counsels the students with co-director Freedman.
In addition to their support, the group receives mentorship from award-winning musicians, actors and directors, including local recording artist Tina Schlieske (whose band backs-up the performers), and Oscar and Golden Globe award winner Dean Pitchford.
Schlieske has served as an AHA! mentor for many years, helping the students select songs that will push them beyond their comfort zone and hopefully have meaning to them.
“We are looking for that breakthrough song, not the one that’s in your back pocket,” she said.
The first to take the rehearsal stage is a 14-year-old freshman who selects a song about survival, admitting later that she’s been bullied in the past and had suicidal thoughts. She said that since joining the AHA! program one year ago, she has gained confidence. At AHA!, she says, “everyone is accepted and there is no judgment for what you’ve done.”
A 16-year-old said she didn’t know anyone when she first joined the group but now feels extremely connected. “AHA! has given me a safe place to be who I am,” she confesses. Before joining AHA! the young girl acknowledged a drinking and drug problem but credits the program with helping her change bad habits and move forward.
Songwriter, screenwriter, director and actor Pitchford advises the students, “Don’t be afraid to succeed,” directly addressing an 18-year-old who has a gifted but guarded voice. As the boy stands before the group in his Metallica T-shirt, rehearsing the R&B classic “Stand By Me,” he admits to past issues with trust, making the song especially relevant. He says the AHA! experience has taught him “to use my words more often, to be calmer, and to see a wider variety of people and what they go through.”
The afternoon closes with a shy boy who sings a song by the group Fun that is so serious and full of emotion, the room falls silent. His performance is a powerful testament to the magic of music and to the emotions that help transcend the students beyond challenging times.
Sing It Out takes place Sunday, May 18 at Deckers Outdoor Corp.’s new headquarters, 6601 Hollister Ave. in Goleta. Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for students under 21. VIP tickets for $100 include preferred seating, food and two drinks. The reception begins at 5:30 p.m., at which time Deckers will open its flagship retail store, offering 20 percent off with an additional 20 percent donated to AHA! Performance starts promptly at 7:30 p.m. No host bar and food truck available.
— Ann Pieramici represents AHA!