It seemed like a relatively simple, fun field trip, but visiting Dalewood Middle School two years ago burst a coddled cocoon that Thomas West had been living in and set him on a course to change the world around him.
West, a 17-year-old senior at McCallie School and a classically trained vocalist, had won a spot on the NPR radio show "From the Top" when it came to the Tivoli Theatre and, as part of that, he was invited to be a part of the program's leadership training program, which included the trip to Dalewood. What he saw at the school was a student body eager to experience and embrace art of any kind in a school, but with very limited resources to accommodate them and a music teacher making do with whatever she could afford on her own.
West says he and fellow visiting student musician John Burton were treated like rock stars by the Dalewood students and, while they loved their visit, they were struck by a world far different than their own.
"They had one teacher doing choir, band and theater, and they had just gotten one keyboard," West says. "That was all they had."
He would later incredulously tell someone: "They didn't even have a piano."
And, of the 40 or 50 Dalewood students he sang for, only one had been inside the Tivoli prior to his performance, he says.
"I didn't grow up here, so going to Dalewood was definitely eye-opening," says West, who spent his early years in Atlanta.
"I was in the boys choir [in Atlanta] and sang all over the world," he says. "The Atlanta Opera came to my school once a year to sing. Everything was just given to me, so going there, my bubble was burst, for sure."
Since that eye-opening experience, what West has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. On Nov. 21, with the help of several area businesses, foundations, donors and fellow high school students Ralston Hartness, Megan Daniela and McKenna Quatro, he will see part of his vision become reality. At a CD release party/concert, West will make the official public introduction of Let Beauty Awaken, the nonprofit that he established through the Community Foundation to raise money for Hamilton County school arts programs.
The concert at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre will feature some of the student performers on the CD, as well as the local groups Dismembered Tennesseans and the WTM Blues Band. Money raised will go toward buying art and music equipment for Hamilton County public schools.
Funding the future
West moved from Atlanta to Chattanooga with his family prior to his ninth-grade year specifically so he could study in McCallie's music department. Having attended private school in Atlanta as well, he thought every student had the same access to lessons, tutors, individual practice rooms, equipment and visiting opera companies as he did. Then he visited Dalewood.
Something else he learned while in Atlanta, primarily through volunteering at his church, was to get involved.
Spending a few hours with West, you realize he has as good an understanding of the arts - and especially funding for arts in Chattanooga - as maybe anyone else in town. After reading an article on problems with local arts funding in the Times Free Press several weeks ago, he sent a lengthy email that read in part: "As bad as arts funding is right now, imagine what it will be like in 15 years, when those same kids that I spent time with at Dalewood are adults. Do you really think they will want to give to the arts when they grew up never getting the chance to experience it for themselves?"
In sharpening his vision over the past couple of years, West became convinced that, if the future was going to be truly altered, it would have to come from young people and not just the ones who had traditionally benefited from the arts. The current students in Hamilton County "are the ones who will either build up or tear down the arts in our great city," he wrote in the email, and they will only choose the former if they are exposed to the arts, and the best place to do that is in school.
His original thought was to donate his time and talents at Dalewood, but after a summer of research in 2012, he realized the problem was county-wide and not isolated to the Brainerd school. So he dreamt bigger and started reaching out to people. Among the first were Boyd Buhl and Scott Kornblum, corporate sales manager and general manager at WSMC-FM at Southern Adventist University. The station was involved in bringing "From the Top" to the Tivoli.
"He is an outstanding young man and an outstanding Christian," Buhl says. "I feel like, when I leave this world, things will be OK because of people like Thomas West."
Through their discussions, West knew he needed to broaden his dream and also that what he envisioned was going to take a lot of work. And he realized that, while he'd need help from adults, the effort had to be primarily youth driven.
"I knew I had to find more students," he says.
So he approached fellow McCallie student Hartness, a musician who plays guitar.
"If I'd known how much work it would be, I might have thought longer about it, but I agreed immediately and I'm glad I said yes," Hartness says.
West also met with the leaders of local charitable foundations. One of the first was Johnny Smith with the McKenzie Foundation. That meeting gave West the confidence and mental boost that he needed to continue, and it also opened doors that led to other doors.
"When I first met him I was impressed with his heart," Smith says. "One of the first things he says to me after visiting Dalewood was, 'They don't even have a real piano.' Thomas had a really big desire to do something about that.
"Another thing is his drive. Some of the people he has met with I've had trouble getting a meeting with."
Making a CD
Through all of this, the idea for producing a CD featuring local students came up. Smith helped guide West on how to get the budget prepared for the CD, how to record it and mentored him in other areas as well.
West decided that the music on the CD would be limited to traditional music and would exclude rock and rap, not because he doesn't like the styles, but because he wanted to expose people, especially young public school students, to something new.
"And, I wanted it to be more beautiful, hopeful and less painful," he says.
He asked Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Music Director emeritus Robert Bernhardt, Chattanooga Theatre Centre Producing Manager George Quick and local music advocate and promoter Buddy Shirk to serve as judges during an audition process to find performers.
Fifteen were selected and they have been recording their songs at Red Crow Studio on Hixson Pike, under the direction of engineer Ross Carlson.
"I've been blown away," Carlson says. "It is some of the most enjoyable, innocent, free and happy music."
The youngest performer is a 10-year-old violinist and the oldest is a freshman at Lee University. The tracks include works on cello, violin, classical guitar, vocal and piano pieces either written by the students or songs in the public domain.
While the "Let Beauty Awaken" CD was being planned, West realized he would need cover art, and so he expanded the Let Beauty Awaken footprint to visual arts. That's when Megan Daniela and McKenna Quatro became involved; both are seniors at Baylor who are heavily involved in visual arts. A call was put out to local art students to submit pieces not only for the CD cover, but for an art showcase that will be part of the benefit concert.
At the show, West plans to announce the future direction of the Let Beauty Awaken. It will involve a name change and a plan to involve more students, who will essentially take over as the four students now involved head off to college.
The four have been meeting with Rodney Van Valkenberg at ArtsBuild, the local arts advocate and fund-raising organization, for help in creating the nonprofit's framework and also to reach out to students. West stresses that the student group will not be an ArtsBuild organization, but ArtsBuild will serve in an advisory capacity, especially in the early stages.
"I just really believe this has to come from students," West says. "We want to be independent. We feel like our vision is different, and we want to build from the ground up and create something that is sustainable."
Whether they were aware of it or not, the four students echoed the message that ArtsBuild has been preaching to the community for the last five years - a message about why the arts are important, especially for students.
Being a musician "maybe that has helped me in other subjects and increased test scores," Hartness says, "but for me it is an outlet and, when I sit down and play or write a song, it is the moment when I am really myself."
Daniela and Quatro say art is a great stress reliever for them.
"It is therapeutic," Quatro says. "It is used to help kids with learning disabilities with problems and I know it helps me. I can't imagine not having it as an outlet."
West has several dreams for the future of Let Beauty Awaken. He'd love for it to produce a concert with someone like Chattanooga-raised musician Usher, but that's secondary to the nonprofit's ultimate goal that every Hamilton County school student has art in his or her life.
"I hope to not just get people who already give to give money, but to reach people who never get to experience the arts," West says. "Their dreams aren't being fulfilled. Schools are not teaching them how to dream.
"The purpose of education is to teach people to be the next leaders, and the arts have a way of empowering people through love and support and some students don't always get that.
"Music completes me as a person."
Contact staff writer Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.