The Home That Music Builtby Alanaa Berman October 29, 2011
By Alanna Berman
The Storefront emergency shelter sits on a non-descript block between Hillcrest and Bankers Hill. No signs indicate its presence; passersby would never know this building is the only emergency, 24-hour drop-in center in San Diego for homeless youth between the ages of 12 and 17, who number in the 2,000s. This level of confidentiality and anonymity is important for an agency whose goal is to provide a safe space for homeless and disadvantaged teens with nowhere to go, but on Nov. 12, The Storefront, and some of its former and current residents, will step into the spotlight at the Photocharity National Walk and Concert to Save Homeless Youth.
Photocharity, an organization that “raises awareness and funds for charitable organizations that empower youth to make better choices,” chose in its early years to make The Storefront its sole recipient of funds. It’s been San Diegan Jeffrey Sitcov’s labor of love for the last decade, and this year, its annual walk has expanded to five additional cities: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Buffalo, Rochester, and even Spain’s San Sebastian. They’ll each hold their own walk to benefit homeless youth in their communities, modeled after Photocharity’s own fundraising event. In San Diego, the walk will come to an end at Liberty Station, where funk and soul band The Styletones will play for the crowd.
“We want to do whatever we can to save homeless kids in our community and other communities, [which is why the money raised in the other cities’ walks] goes back to their own communities,” Sitcov says. “This is truly tikkun olam, when you’re helping without asking for something in return.”
Like San Diego, each city participating in the walk agreed to allocate any funds raised toward serving homeless youth between the ages of 12-17 in their own cities, modeled after Photocharity’s own stewardship of The Storefront.
Recently, though, The Storefront has begun taking steps to address another age bracket facing similar problems: young adults ages 18-24. Homeless people in this age bracket, Sitcov says, need the most help, because unlike their peers, they have no skills, sometimes having lived on the streets for five to six years.
“There are organizations in town that help the 18-24-year-olds, but they have to have skills and be able to live in their own house and be able to work,” he says. “These kids that we want to work with are [seen as] the gutter — the “level one” kids, the worst of the worst, the street kids, the throwaway kids.”
In San Diego, Photocharity is already taking steps to serve this slightly older age bracket, but the project, House of Hope Beds, is still in the works. For now, half of all the money raised by Photocharity will continue to serve its original beneficiary, The Storefront; the rest will go to developing services for 18-24 year olds, which Sitcov says will begin next June.
“It’s easy to help the younger kids everyone is touched by, but what’s [more difficult] is to get help for the 18-24-year-olds who have no shelters anywhere,” Sitcov says. “[Their circumstances are] like a black hole.”
According to Sitcov, his goal is to partner Photocharity with another organization, like it has done with The Storefront, and together support the estimated 4,000 homeless between the ages of 18 and 24. If this yet-to-be-determined agency is anything like The Storefront, the partnership will be an incredible success.
A program of San Diego Youth Services, The Storefront operates almost entirely on funding provided by Photocharity through events and auctions of music memorabilia signed by such celebrities as B.B. King, Chris Isaak, Jaime Foxx, Elton John and Carlos Santana, to name a few.
“Billy Joel was the first artist to remember me from photos I would take at his shows,” says Sitcov, a physical therapist and music photographer by trade. “When I decided to start working on this project, he got involved with us and spoke to Elton John. Between the two of them, they’ve signed seven keyboards for us, and we’ve raised more than $150,000 for homeless kids [through the sale of those keyboards]. In signed memorabilia alone, we’ve raised more than $675,000. It takes one person to make a significant difference, and we’ve had so many of these angels who have helped us in the music industry, specifically, because they get it and they trusted me.”
And although Photocharity is non-sectarian, certain Jewish influences are woven into its operations.
“All of our donations are made in [denominations of] 18,” says Sitcov, who is Jewish. “I don’t usually say it’s because it’s chai, but I do like to tell people that in Hebrew, 18 means life, so since we’re bringing life to these homeless kids, I think karmically, it makes sense.”
Through direct donations, $1,800 at a time, Photocharity has raised more than $1.7 million for The Storefront and its numerous programs. Among other things, Photocharity’s funds have helped provide breakfast and dinner for the shelter’s residents for the past 10 years and supported the creation of an expressive arts program and music therapy classes. The music therapy classes even inspired the teens to create a Storefront band, called TNT, or Tuesday Night Teens, which has recorded more than 50 original songs to date.
Through The Storefront’s music therapy program, teens can channel their energy toward positive efforts, a form of release for kids who oftentimes have bottled their feelings and emotions in order to survive life on the street.
“So many of these kids have been so hurt and are so shut down,” says Rachelle Danto, who facilitated the music therapy program for six years. “For these kids, [having a form of self expression] is so important, because they come in like empty shells and have absolutely no idea what they are feeling except fear.”
Though a few years have passed since Danto’s involvement with the music classes, she’s offering her support this month when she and her band, Bob Pruitt and the Rhythm Jacks, perform at the walk and concert. Her memories of her time at The Storefront, though, remain strong.
“Sometimes there were kids sitting there with their heads between their knees not really wanting to be there, almost like wilted flowers, and four months later it was like we gave them water, and they were starting to come to life, with the music program putting the pieces back,” Danto says. “It’s really something to see. I think a lot of it has to do not even so much with being a music program but just the idea of being able to do something individually and collectively in a group that is expressive.”
Current and former Storefront residents will also speak at the walk, giving their own testimonies to the power of The Storefront and Photocharity in their lives. It’s what many of the kids say is their way of giving back to an organization that has given so much to them.
Justine Bethel, now 22, lived at The Storefront as a teen and left right before her 17th birthday to move into her own apartment and start her own business. Before her arrival at the shelter, she had lived on the streets, and after she moved in, she was on suicide watch for six months.
“Of anyone I’ve met in the 10 years I’ve been doing this, Justine touched me the most,” Sitcov says. “It took her six months to look me in the eye, and [when she did], she asked to learn how to play music. Now to see her evolve at 22 years old and have her life together is amazing. She really went into our expressive arts program and excelled there, and she is now a full-time artist. But she would have been dead if it weren’t for our programs.”
Bethel, who makes cruelty-free feather jewelry, supports herself with her artwork, something she credits The Storefront and Photocharity for showing her how to do.
“Photocharity is awesome for funding the expressive arts program and the music program, both of which are incredibly therapeutic, and got me inspired,” Bethel says. “If it wasn’t for the art program, I wouldn’t be where I am today, as an artist for a living. It was the art program that inspired me to do that.”
Twenty-five staff members, including a full-time independent living skills coordinator, are also vital to residents’ success. They ensure residents follow house rules, like going to school, doing homework and respecting the shelter and its occupants. No one is ever turned away from The Storefront for lack of space, but with only 20 beds in the shelter, Photocharity is looking to garner more support this year for The Storefront and their “House of Hope” shelter.
“Our funding is down $50,000 this year, so these are tough times,” Sitcov says, “but we’ve already saved $25,000 for the new beds [for older kids], so it’s a start.”
A small start, but a start nonetheless, for one of the most successful youth shelters in the country, with Photocharity as the only active organization raising funds to support it.
“So many people have been touched by what we’re doing, that we hope we can continue to serve these kids as we have been,” Sitcov says.
By holding a national walk, Sitcov and his team hope to raise awareness for teens who have been invisible for so long.
“These kids don’t choose to be on the streets,” he says. “They’re there because they have no other option, but we can give them hope by providing a clean, safe space for them at The Storefront, [and with the establishement of House of Hope] and that’s what it’s all about.”
The annual Walk to Save Homeless Youth will take place this year at NTC Park at Liberty Station in Point Loma Nov. 12. Registration begins at 9 a.m., with the 5K walk to start at 10 a.m. Following the walk, homeless youth from The Storefront will speak with leadership from Photocharity. Bob Pruitt and the Rhythm Jacks will play during registration and throughout the walk. Additionally, the Bill McGee blues band will play at 11 a.m., and The Styletones will play at 12:15 p.m. Cost to register for the walk and concert is $18 per person, with VIP and sponsorship options available. For more information, visit www.photocharity.org/national-walk.php.
Camps Nationwide with Programs for Special-Needs Kids
Responding to a growing need in the Jewish community for summer camps that can cater to children with special needs, many sites have created specialized programs — either parallel or inclusive — for kids with different types of challenges. Among the camps that are solely for children with special needs:
• Camp Simcha (www.chailifeline.org), in Glen Spey, N.Y.
• Camp HASC (www.hasc.net/camp), in the Catskills
• Round Lake Camp (www.roundlakecamp.org), a NJY Camp in Lakewood, Penn.
• Camp Yaldei (www.yaldei.org/summerCamp.asp), in Wentworth-Nord, Quebec, Canada.
In the western United States, the following camps offer programs for children with
• Camp Akiba (www.templeakiba.net/fellowship.asp?pid=48), in Santa Barbara
• B’nai B’rith Camp (www.bbcamp.org), in Oregon
• Camp Charles Pearlstein (www.campcharlespearlstein.com), in Prescott, Ariz.
• Camp Ramah (www.ramah.org), in Ojai
• Camp Tawonga (www.tawonga.org) in Groveland, near Yosemite
• Camp Kalsman (kalsman.urjcamps.org), in Arlington, Wash.
• Camp Newman (newman.urjcamps.org) in Santa Rosa
Other camps in North America with special needs programs include:
• Camp Kaylie (www.campkaylie.org), in Wurtsboro, N.Y.
• Camp Kingswood (www.kingswood.org), in Bridgton, Maine
• Capital Camps (www.capitalcamps.org), in Waynesboro, Penn.
• Camp Livingston (www.camplivingston.com), in Bennington, Ind.
• JCC Camp Chi (www.campchi.com), in Lake Delton, Wisc.
• Camp Morasha (www.campmorasha.com), in Lake Como, Penn.
• Camp B’nai Brith (www.cbbmtl.org), in Lantier, Quebec, Canada.
Parents can visit www.jewishcamp.org/camps and click “Special Needs” in the search tool.