Updated: Oct 11, 2019
A safe place to flourish.
By Christine Carpenter
A few years ago, the mother of Leila, one of my seventh-grade students at Dana Middle School, invited me to see her daughter perform in a production of Disney’s The Lion King at Haven Academy of the Arts in El Segundo. Because her daughter was typically quiet at school, she wanted me, Leila’s Language Arts teacher, to see how different Leila was onstage.
I took my two kids to see the show, and to say that we were highly entertained and impressed would be an understatement. Leila played the character Rafiki, a lead role. It was amazing to see how my usually reserved student was wholly uninhibited and high-spirited on stage: dancing, singing, and speaking in a heavy accent—essentially taking over the stage in a wonderful way. The contrast was extreme.
This experience was also my daughter Sophie’s first exposure to Haven. After seeing that performance of The Lion King, she begged me to sign her up for the next production, which was a Disney’s The Aristocats summer camp. The rest is history. Sophie now has seven shows under her belt and has convinced my 13-year-old son, Kai, to start attending Haven, too. I’d say Sophie is Haven-obsessed.
Haven began when then-high-school-student Rebekah Hellerman and her friend Margy Emmons started putting on Christmas plays at their church, Oceanside Christian Fellowship (OCF), in El Segundo.
At this early stage, the program was known as OCF Youth Theatre. Emmons would write the music and Hellerman would write the rest. Years later, when Hellerman attended Biola University, she would return to OCF to run summer theater camps, producing four successful musicals in total, including Oliver and Beauty and the Beast. More and more students were signing up to be in OCF Youth Theatre productions, including students who were not members of OCF, and Hellerman noticed what an impact the program was having on the lives of her students. She saw how her short summer camps were changing lives and realized that the community—beyond the church community—needed a program like OCF Youth Theatre in which students could participate year ’round.
To meet this need, in 2007 Hellerman founded Haven Academy of the Arts, an educational non-profit organization, with OCF offering the use of its facilities for rehearsals and performances. Haven’s first musical production was The Sound of Music in September 2008. Since then, Haven has put on more than 50 musicals and enrolls more than 800 students every year.
Life Lessons Through Performance
Hellerman, now Kellaway, says that she chose the name “Haven” because she wanted to “create an environment where any kid could feel that they belong.” The idea of creating a “haven” for students “really resonated” with her own life goals, she adds. Giselle Walters, whose children Sakura and Kenobi attend Haven, appreciates this inclusive aspect of Haven. According to Walters, “Haven has become our second home. There’s no other place that my children would rather be: among kind-hearted, talented kids who take the performing arts seriously.”
Every Haven parent with whom I’ve chatted appreciates the many gifts that Haven offers. El Segundo resident Carie Oulashian was a Haven fan long before she was hired to be Richmond Street School’s new vice principal. Oulashian, whose children Joshua, Isabella, and Annalise have performed in many Haven productions, is “forever grateful” for what Haven has done for her kids. She says, “Haven has not only impacted my kids’ abilities on stage but has grown in them perseverance, collaboration, responsibility—the list goes on.” And Oulashian is not alone. Marilyn Comitz’s daughter Sofia has been a student at Haven since she was five years old—she’s 13 now—and her next show will be her 28th! Aside from providing the opportunity for kids to perform on stage, Haven, says Comitz, teaches students “valuable skills that will help them in their everyday lives, like responsibility, accountability, and time management.” She also acknowledges the social benefits that Haven offers. “Every cast becomes a family. Sofia has created wonderful friendships over the years.”
Kellaway feels that what happens at Haven really empowers students. With a gleam in her eyes, she explains how rewarding it is to “watch students stand on stage for the first time.” According to Kellaway, the teachers at Haven are “very intentional about not just throwing kids up on stage.” As a parent, I can confirm that this is true. As Walters says, students at Haven take what they do very seriously. During rehearsals, students take part in different classes, such as dance, blocking, and singing. While they have a great time, they are learning a lot about the technical aspects of performing.
Students also recognize how Haven empowers them. Leila, my student who played Rafiki, says that she used to be “painfully shy and avoided talking at all costs.” Leila, who started attending Haven in first grade and is now in 10th grade, says, “It completely changed me and the way I interact with others. It basically forced me out of my shell without my knowing it, and I carried that change with me in school and other activities.” Leila’s 13-year-old sister Malia has had a similar experience, crediting Haven with helping her “become more confident.” Danielle Hill, Leila and Malia’s mom, says, “Haven has been instrumental in helping my daughters overcome shyness and anxiety.” She appreciates that Haven has nurtured her daughters’ many talents beyond acting, singing, and dancing, such as doing stage makeup, working on the tech crew, and even counseling younger Haven students. All of this, she says, has helped the girls find more confidence at school and in many aspects of their lives.
Theater for All
It’s important to Kellaway that the arts be accessible for everyone. Haven’s scholarship program offers full or partial scholarships to students who might otherwise be unable to participate. A special committee reviews scholarship applications to determine who is awarded the scholarships and how much they will be awarded. Haven also has a branch that offers an after-school arts program and summer camps to underserved youth in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Pico Union programs are funded by grants and donations, and they are generally tuition-free for low-income youth. According to Kellaway, one of the goals of the Pico Union branch is to “keep kids off the streets and in a positive environment.”
Things are getting better and better as Haven’s program offerings keep expanding. According to Kellaway, “We always look at our student and community population to see what they need” and offer “programs that fill gaps.” Haven’s current offerings include spring and fall musical programs, a “Petite Players” program, a children’s choir led by El Segundo High School choir director Gianna Summers, multiple summer camps, an audition-only summer show for Haven’s most advanced students, a cabaret for high school students, a new home-school program, and an adult community choir, led by Kellaway’s husband, Matthew, who is a conductor, professional singer, and college professor at Biola University and CSU Fullerton.
On the Horizon
What’s next? The OCF auditorium is going through a full renovation, acquiring new lighting, a state-of-the-art sound system, and an extended stage, all of which should be completed just in time for the fall production of Les Misérables Jr., which will feature students in third through 12th grades. After that, there will be Disney Frozen Jr. for kindergarteners through fifth graders and sixth through eighth graders, and Seussical Kids for kindergarteners through second graders and homeschoolers (in first through eighth grades). And finally, next summer’s audition-only production will be Matilda: The Musical. (This summer’s production of Newsies was jaw-droppingly awesome!)
As a parent and educator, I highly recommend Haven if you have a child who can benefit from the technical instruction; the fun, warm inclusivity; and the character-building that Haven offers. And if your family prefers participating as audience members, you can count on Haven for an amazing show.
For more information, visit havenartsacademy.org.
Haven Academy of the Arts, South Bay location
OCF Church, 343 Coral Circle, El Segundo
Christine Carpenter lives in El Segundo and teaches Language Arts at Dana Middle School in Hawthorne. Her two children (including Sophie, pictured above with friend Emma) attend Haven Academy of the Arts.
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of The El Segundo Scene.