Difference Maker

John Alston turns kids in hoodies into a choral band of brothers

An after-school program in Chester, Pa., gives at-risk teenagers a music education – and much more

By , / Correspondent

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    John Alston came to Swarthmore College to build his own résumé, and wound up building an expanding network of choruses for disadvantaged youths.
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Even if they don't sing a single note of music as adults, the performers in the Chester Children's Chorus will make a difference in the world.

Of that much their founding director is convinced.

After all, his own participation in the Newark (N.J.) Boys Chorus opened a new world to the young John Alston when his home life was bleak and his father an alcoholic. Why not do the same for others?

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So in 1994, Dr. Alston, associate professor of music at Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia, invited seven children to come sing with him on the bucolic campus. They were from nearby Chester, Pa., an impoverished city struggling against economic decline, its schools burdened with high dropout rates and abysmal academic achievement.

The seven children were the forerunners of what now includes the coed, 120-voice Chester Children's Chorus (CCC); a full-day summer program at Swarthmore; a new public-private Chester Upland School of the Arts; and formal musical instruction for public school students throughout Chester.

[Editor's note: The original version of the paragraph above indicated that the Chester Fund for Education and the Arts and the Chester Children's Chorus were related. They are two separate organizations, though Dr. Alston founded and heads both.]

Ultimately Alston wants membership in a chorus like CCC to be available to every child in Chester.

Gathered one recent frigid Thursday evening for study, supper, and song, the members of the chorus's young men's division took their places at long tables inside an icicle-covered Chester Friends Meeting house and cracked their schoolbooks.

This vulnerable group of young men is perhaps the chorus section closest to Alston's heart. None of them comes from a home with a father; many live with a "mother figure," not an actual mom.

Alston, the soft-spoken son of a Filipino mother and an African-American father, didn't come to southeastern Pennsylvania to work with 15-year-olds in hoodies. He came to prestigious Swarthmore College to find fame in his profession.

Naively, he thought training poor kids to sing cantatas might fancy up his own profile. Instead, he unwittingly set himself on a new path away from academia. As his responsibilities at Swarthmore have shrunk, the college "has been kind enough to allow me to keep my tenure," Alston says.

His Chester gig keeps growing. It now provides the bulk of his income and takes the lion's share of his time: fundraising, conducting, and writing music.

Grants and donations, large and small, have allowed CCC to hire staff and buy vans. Alston dreams of someday "shocking the world with how good we are," he says.

In the meantime, there's plenty to do. There are 10 section rehearsals weekly. Thirteen performances were given last year. And there are the extras, like auditioning to sing the national anthem at a Philadelphia 76ers basketball game.

Not that musical success is the ultimate goal here. "I don't want to be cheesy," says Marquise Miles, age 17, the senior member of the chorus and one of only three who aspire to be professional musicians. "But we're really like a family here.... It's like having a bunch of brothers."

Marquise, whose father is in prison, is joined in the chorus by his two younger sisters. He hopes to study music next year at nearby Temple University. Ultimately, he says, he would like to start "a whole bunch of Chester Children's Choruses."

"What I look for in giving is finding people who are doing what they do really well," says Carole Haas Gravagno, one of the chorus's benefactors and an avid supporter of programs to bring the arts to children. Alston is "one of those people you'd like to clone," she says. "He had a great job [at Swarthmore] and he chose to go to Chester and work with these children.... It's just a marvelous thing to watch."

Alston wants his young men ready for wherever life leads. Toward that end, they show up, sit up straight, and hold the door for a stranger. Together they go to the gym with Alston, to movies, to a wide range of restaurants, even to Broadway shows.

In exchange for spending an hour and a half at New York's Guggenheim museum, "I take them to the NBA store," he says.

In rehearsal, they learn to read music, pausing to understand and master the classical pieces before being freed to move to something with, maybe, a cool Jamaican vibe. They learn by performing that persistence in rehearsals yields rousing applause for their Vivaldi "Magnificat."

Later, perhaps at a time when life may feel devoid of music, they'll find that the fortitude they learned on these worn meetinghouse benches sustains them.

Mostly, they learn that they matter.

Darius Thomas, 13, says Alston "made something out of nothing" when he brought the admitted troublemaker, who was suspended from school in fifth grade, into the chorus. Darius now gets A's and B's in school, he says, and has high hopes for high school, college, and a career in the Central Intelligence Agency.

"I am absolutely certain this is why I was put on this earth," says Alston, newly married, as he contemplates his young charges.

"I tell them the world needs you," he says. "It is up to you to make the world a better place."

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