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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

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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.

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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."

• For more stories about people making a difference go here.

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