By KYW Newsradio community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg
CHESTER, Pa. (CBS) — Twenty years ago, Dr. John Alston started the Chester Children’s Chorus with seven boys and a dream.
“I had no idea what I was doing… we were terrible,” says Alston, chuckling.
The New Jersey native grew up knowing he’d become a musician after singing in the Newark Boys Chorus as a child. And when he came to Swarthmore, Pa. in the 1990s, he thought he was just “passing through” on his way to becoming world-renowned in the music world.
But those seven boys and that dream grabbed his heart.
“After a while, I realized I was lucky enough that these children found me,” Alston says. “They taught me what I am supposed to do with my life.”
The choir grew from seven boys to twenty-five, plus a couple of their sisters who hung out during rehearsals.
And after just a few more years, the group grew larger and more diversified, with equal numbers of boys and girls joining the ranks.
Alston says he would pick up each of the children for weekly rehearsals using a van borrowed from Swarthmore College.
“It was a glorious and messy time,” says Alston, “but after about ten years, we got good. And I mean, really good!”
A former associate professor of music at Swarthmore, Alston now directs the Children’s Chorus, teaching the children how to read music and hone their voices while introducing them to classics like Beethoven and Mozart.
But what he also does, quietly, is teach them that there is more to life than the reality they live in.
“In 2013, there were twenty-four murders in [Chester,] a town of 34,000,” Alston notes, “and that year three of the 45 older children who sang lost siblings to murder. And I just want everybody to know how brave our children are.”
Alston wrote a song, “If I Had Known,” that tries to explain the pain the children felt.
“They have many struggles to deal with every day,” he says, adding that the music helps. “It soothes your sorrow just a little bit.”
Today, 140 boys and girls, ages eight to 18, are part of the choir, which performs fifteen concerts a year, produces professional-quality CDs, and commands standing ovations whenever it takes the stage.
Last month, the Chester Children’s Choir performed for Gov. Tom Wolf during Pennsylvania’s inauguration celebration.
“It’s a big party when (the chorus) is on stage,” says Alston. “We have so much fun. They get to stand up on the stage to be celebrated.”
And Alston is hoping to expand the impact of the arts on the children of Chester. In 2012, he opened the Chester Charter School for the Arts, with 325 students in grades K through 8. Alston says they use an integrated curriculum that infuses art in every aspect of learning.
“It creates better thinkers,” he says, “and when our children are educated, they will take care of the rest. They will know exactly what to do with their community.”
Today, the school has more than 400 students.
“All children, including Chester children, will blossom if given the right combination of high expectations and love,” he says.
Hear the extended interview with Dr. John Alston in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 13:35)…
Follow Cherri Gregg on Twitter: @cherrigregg
“Like” her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CherriGreggMedia