“This is not American Idol or a contest. It’s the anti contest,” said AHA co-founder Jennifer Freed, just before an evening of performance on Sunday evening. “This is about having the courage to stand in front of you and sing out for joy and rapture and possibility.”
Around 350 people gathered at the large rotunda at Deckers’ Goleta headquarters in the early evening to watch 14 teenagers sing pop and rock hits, all with professional band backing them up.
It was the culmination of 12 weeks of rehearsals and training to take youths and help them confront their fears – lack of confidence, self-image, rejection – put it aside, and just “Sing It Out,” as the event was called.
This marked the nonprofit group’s 11th annual event. AHA stands for Attitude Harmony and Achievement, and was started by Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman after the Columbine shootings of 1999.
“We never wanted any youth to feel that much disconnection, hatred and despair,” Ms. Freed said.
Both her and Mr. Freeman have backgrounds in psychology and wanted to step into the emotional learning that junior highs and high schools can’t, and singing is a great way to form small social groups that are supportive.
The final performances are more about the act of being on stage in front of an even larger supportive group, and less about singing in tune or being perfect. Not that the young adults who sang weren’t entertaining. They worked the crowd, they owned the stage, and even when some notes got a bit wobbly, they persevered with attitude and confidence.
Deckers CEO Angel Martinez said the company offered the rotunda (and its outside patio where food and beverages were served) because “charities are always stressed to find a place for their functions. So we figured why not allow them to use this facility.”
Deckers also opened up its store space, offering 20 percent off everything, with some of the proceeds going to AHA! (all ticket sales for the event itself went to AHA!).
“I remember what someone very important did for me in high school,” said Mr. Martinez, explaining not just why Deckers got involved but why he also sits on AHA!’s board. “At that time of life you need caring, committed adults who want you to see you do your best.”
AHA! has in-school, after-school and summer programs that visit Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Santa Ynez and Ojai.
According to Ms. Freed, the summer program is most popular with a first-come, first-serve basis and maintains its popularity through word of mouth. Ms. Freed likes to use the example of Paul Lewis to explain what AHA! can achieve. Bullied because of his mixed race, and coming from a traumatic family background, he attended one of the first AHA! programs at age 14 and stayed with the group through the age of 26, facilitating peace-building programs at Santa Barbara High.
He is now a deputy sheriff.
Junior high is the time when things can go “really south,” Ms. Freed said. It doesn’t matter how confident they are in elementary school or the economic background.
“Our program is for all people,” she said. “There’s no particular type of people that is more susceptible than others. … All youth need this type of social and emotional education if we’re going to have a society where people care about each other, and where success isn’t based on monetary achievement but on people being happier and contributing to society.”
The Sunday evening performers were Joanna Alvarez, Haley Beckwith, Minerva Carrillo, Isaac Cortes, Marguerite Gregston, Martin Gonzalez, Samantha Hurd, Diego Lazcono, Joe Ortiz, John Sherk, Elias Silva, Hannah Turner, and Angel Valenzuela. Mayor Helene Schneider, no stranger to the microphone, also got up and sang “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
Minerva Carrillo, a 15-year-old Santa Barbara High School freshman got into AHA! in junior high.
“It clicked with me,” she said. “I wanted to work on my confidence. I thought it would just be fun, but I didn’t know (being on stage) would be coming up soon.”
She sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” watched by her mom, sister-in-law, brother and friends.
Hannah Turner, 16, goes to Laurel Springs School in Ojai. She says she met Ms. Freed after being picked on at her regular high school, which caused her to drop out and change to the home-school Laurel Springs environment.
“The theme of team building, I love it,” she said. “The singing is a bonus.”
On Sunday she sang Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.”
“The first time I sang it I was nervous,” she said. “I sang it over the original song. Then we kind of took it away and had the band play it. Now it’s really fun … . You’re singing in front of people who are supporting you and not judging you.”
“If you’ve ever performed,” said Ms. Freed, “the high that you get from having an audience love you is unforgettable. It can sustain you in other times, when you remember that you accomplished something and people loved you.”
For more on AHA! go to ahasb.org