by Joanne Williams
“Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar? And be better off than you are? … You could be swingin’ on a star.”
This Disney ditty became the theme song of Performing Stars, a Marin City-based nonprofit founded in 1990 with the idea that providing low-income and at-risk children with opportunities in art, music, theater and dance would help them “reach for the stars.”
In the early days, the budget was low, but there was, and still is, an abundance of enthusiasm and energy from executive director Felecia Gaston, who believes that every child deserves a starring role in life.
“We have launched numerous careers and inspired personal achievement,” Gaston says from her office in Marin City, recalling the struggles and productive encounters she’s had with Marin leaders who have helped her along the way.
“We start when the children are just three and four years old, encouraging [them] through ballet, hip-hop, tap dancing, zydeco, baton twirling, drumming, a drill team and other performance arts to develop self-reliance and confidence that they’ll carry throughout their adult lives,” Gaston says.
Has it worked? Twenty-seven-year-old Rayiesha Breaux started hip-hop dancing with Performing Stars when she was six, and kept it up until she was ready for Tam High School. “It helped me develop confidence and stage presence,” she says, “and to take a leadership role in high school.” Breaux graduated from San Francisco State in political science. Next step: Law school. “Right now I have my paralegal certificate,” she says, “so it’s a start.”
Breaux is just one example of the kids who have thrived because of Performing Stars. “Teachers throughout the county have told us how delighted they are to see positive behavior changes in Performing Stars students,” says Anne Rogers, who, as executive director of Marin Food Bank, helped in the development of the group.
“Felecia and I both yearned to develop a program that would have an impact not only in Marin City but would change the stereotype and mental image that comes to mind when people in other parts of Marin hear about Marin City,” Rogers says. “Dance and other arts are not the only activity. Performing Stars meet weekly to discuss good manners, etiquette, discipline, self-esteem, proper grooming and dress codes for the group.”
“Anne pulled together a founding board of directors, including Norma Howard and other influential people, but since we had no track record it was hard to get funding in 1990,” Gaston recalls. “But when $1,000 came from a Marin County Community Development Block Grant, we were on our way.”
The Marin Ballet offered dance scholarships for the first 16 kids, Gaston says, and Performing Stars moved from classroom to classroom in Marin City to rehearse. Today, the nonprofit—which enrolls around 100 kids per year—rehearses at Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, The Branson School, in public housing and wherever else they can find space. More than 1,400 children have benefited from the program over the last 25 years.
Art was a hard sell in those beginning days, competing with sports programs and tutoring, but Gaston, now 59, has a persuasive personality that is hard to resist. As a single parent she was unafraid to ask for help from her parents, neighbors, friends and associates. Gaston claims to have no special talent herself. “Don’t dance, don’t sing,” she says. “I took dance and ballet as an adult and have written three self-published books.”
Gaston became another mother figure for one young woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, and provided a safe nurturing environment to escape the dysfunction at her home at the time. “I was a child in search of myself,” the young woman says, and found a home with Performing Stars. “At home I was always told I would amount to nothing. This program taught me that I can take a stand and make my life count.”
Juan Perez, who grew up in Marin City and now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, started with a dance troupe and drill team that he performed with until he was 13. After high school he joined the Marines, served at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq and now is just shy of his Associate Arts degree in engineering. He’s 34, married and expecting his first child.
Another young man says that Performing Stars helped him finish school and become a better person. “I learned how to communicate with others,” he says. “We were like a big family.”
In a recent letter from the White House, President Obama congratulates Gaston and Performing Stars on their anniversary. “For years, you have carried forward a proud tradition,” the letter reads. “By daring to imagine the world as it could be and working tirelessly to realize that vision, you are helping America reach a better tomorrow.”
Performing Stars will celebrate their 25th anniversary at a sold-out gala on Sept. 26. Learn more at performingstars.org.