Timeless gifts: Youths seeking help to become performers get mentoring and much more
Some 400 Chicago-area residents as young as 8 thru age 21 have honed skills in song, dance and instrument through a mentorship program that teaches them to soar.
Zaji Nixon started singing at age 5. A preacher’s kid, it wasn’t long before she joined the church choir. And at age 9, a family friend referred her to Timeless Gifts, a nonprofit celebrating 10 years of mentoring young aspiring performers in the inner city.
“I was always singing at home or playing on the piano, and my parents realized that it was something I took pretty seriously,” said Nixon, now a 17-year-old senior at South Shore High, heading to Columbia College Chicago next year to study music performance and education.
“Timeless Gifts has given me the opportunity to blossom. It’s where I’ve met some of my closest friends,” said the Chatham teen.
Some 400 youth as young as 8 thru age 21 have been served by the program since inception, paired every summer with artist mentors like some of those honored on Sunday — actor/playwright Val Gray Ward, founder of Chicago’s Kuumba Theater Co; voiceover artist/vocalist Jeff Morrow, who is vocal producer for FOX-TV’S hit show, “Empire”; and singer/songwriter Darius Brooks, a Grammy Award-winning gospel artist.
The youth choose disciplines they’re interested in, from voice and dance to piano and saxophone. “Then we go out and find professional artist instructors for them,” said the group’s brainchild, international jazz vocalist Joan Collaso, a Chicago native.
About four dozen youth — many of whom have participated for years in Timeless Gifts’ seven-week summer program operated in borrowed space at Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church in Bronzeville — showed off skills honed in song, dance and instrument at the group’s 10th Annual Christmas Duets Mentoring Concert and Gala.
Soulful renditions of Christmas classics from “Little Drummer Boy” to “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas,” filled the hall of the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts last weekend.
For Nixon and her friends, the gifts they receive from the group aren’t just musical ones.
“My best friend in the program lives in Auburn-Gresham and literally like, has to cross gang territories just to get to where he’s going,” said Nixon. “He’s witnessed shootouts and just terrible stuff,” she said.
“He plays drums. To see him navigate that environment and not turn into a statistic, I think Timeless Gifts has a lot to do with it. He’s in college now and still comes.”
Some may remember Collaso, of Bronzeville, from the 1997 black cinema classic, “Soul Food.” Made for $8 million, it grossed over $43 million. The Emmy Award winner has performed across Europe and Asia, and has been featured on albums with the likes of Ramsey Lewis and performed with icons like Stevie Wonder.
“There’s a difference between just being an instructor and being a mentor,” said Collaso, who launched Timeless Gifts with the very first Duets concert, Christmas 2010. After the youth and artists she brought together encouraged her to continue it — enriched by the four- to six-week pairing experience — she launched the summer program in 2011.
“These are world-class artists that have a heart to give back. Part of our mission is to give them greater opportunities for performance and exposure that they wouldn’t normally get. But once we have them under our wings, we teach them problem solving, socialization and life skills,” she said.
“And we stick with them. The mentoring part is critical because once a child gets to a certain age, there are so many influences out there that can change their life — peers at school, what they’re watching on TV, music they’re listening to. If there’s no one to stand between that, they can get lost in the shuffle. We’ve seen that many times,” she said.
Timeless Gifts follows its students through college, and many have gone on to excel in the arts and other arenas. Next summer, the program adds sound engineering and videography.
“Not everybody is going to end up being a professional musician, actor or dancer, but the life skills they learn here will serve them no matter where they go in life,” notes Collaso, who took a couple dozen youth on their first international trip, to Milan, Italy, for a performance tour this past April.
“Timeless Gifts has helped me develop not just my voice, but what’s behind it, you know, the emotion and freedom I feel when I sing. It was a slow start for me, but after Ms. Joan saw my growth, she moved me up to the advanced group, and I started working one on one with her,” said Nixon, who majestically sang “Silver Bells” with a fellow student during the Christmas concert.
“You know, what you grow up around kind of creates you into what and who you are, negative or positive,” said the preacher’s kid. “I’ve seen a lot of the negative get turned into positive with a lot of my fellow students, when they’re around adults who love them. The negative energy from the things they witness in their neighborhood and in their own homes is subsided by the love and friendship and support we get from Timeless Gifts.”