In 1994, a skinny, young Associate Professor of Music at Swarthmore College in a leafy beautiful village outside Philadelphia, decided to travel 4 miles down the road to the tough, gritty city of Chester and start a children’s chorus. John Alston was inspired by the Newark Boys Choir, an institution that had transformed his own life when he was a boy struggling to grow up in the equally tough streets of Newark, New Jersey–and he wanted to offer the kids of Chester the same life-saving opportunity. Using his talents as a teacher, conductor and singer, Alston founded a program that has only become more robust over the years.
The mission of Chester Children’s Chorus is to produce strong voices, strong minds and strong spirits in 100 children ranging from 8 to 18, who are growing up in a school district that is among the most poorly performing in the state, in a city where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. But this does not deter Alston one bit. For 16 years he has poured his passion, time and extravagant energy into a tireless crusade to use the power, beauty and artistic experience of music to transform his kids’ lives. ” I want these kids to grow up to be super heroes,” he says. “So they can go on to repair their community and repair the world.”
Super-hero training begins in the second grade. Alston makes a pilgrimage to every second grade class in every public, charter, and religious school in the Chester-Upland School District looking for children with musical potential, enthusiasm and family support. Every child chosen for chorus is on full scholarship, and may stay in the chorus through high school. But it’s hardly an easy ride.
The program is demanding and strenuous because Alston expects great things of his chorus. The children study sight reading, understanding musical theory, hearing harmony, and appreciating artistry. Chorus rehearsals last for 2 hours, 5 days a week, all school year long, and a summer camp runs for 5 weeks, all day, in the summer. At the same time, Alston offers cultural and academic support for his singers, to transfer the rigorous training and self-discipline the kids have learned in music to achievement in scholastics and life beyond the classroom.
The impact of the Chester Children’s Chorus has been profound, and over 16 years, Alston has watched his kids grow up and be transformed, much as he was. The goal has always been to expand the children’s intellectual and cultural horizons so they can flourish as confident individuals and powerful citizens. “The kids get a sense of a larger world that is accessible to them — and in which they belong. I want them to understand that they can do anything, go anywhere, and choose whatever they want to be.”
That’s John Alston’s song — and he’s singing it every day for the children of Chester.
Because I’m in Swarthmore today for my husband’s college reunion and I’ve watched the Chester Children’s Chorus perform for years, today’s $100 goes with gratitude to John Alston & the CCC. Watch a great video on the choir here! To donate, click here.