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Rescue Mission

Marti Foster's complete lack of experience didn't stop her from building a Humboldt Park safe house from the ground up.

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On Halloween, Redmoon Theater set up a 476-foot table made of doors on Kedzie Boulevard and invited the neighborhood over for a potluck dinner. Only half the chairs were designated for the living, however; the rest were laden with memories and objects of the dead. An array of spoons, lace, and an iron was a tribute to two grandmothers; a chair commemorating a fireman was bound with rope.

Redmoon has invited neighborhood organizations to build shrines for three years now as part of its All Hallows' Eve celebration, and people encountering the chairs often add mementos or scribbled notes. But for Marti Foster, director of the fledgling West Humboldt Park Center for the Performing Arts, the Halloween project poses more than just an artistic challenge. "One of the things that has bothered me ever since I have worked in this community is when somebody gets shot over here, they build shrines....I walk down the street, and there it is, wine and whiskey bottles, teddy bears, flowers, drawings, and candles, whatever it is people needed."

Nevertheless, she lets the kids in her program participate in the Redmoon event every year. "There's a part of me that doesn't want the kids to glorify drug dealers or gangbangers," she says. "But for a lot of people in the community, these are their friends."

From 1996 to '98 Foster was a community coordinator with the West Humboldt Park Development Council, starting anticrime programs and block clubs and getting people to attend CAPS meetings in the 11th District, which reports more shootings than any other district in the city. In August at Pulaski and Augusta, for example, "there was a gunfight like the OK Corral," she says. "Four people got killed." One of the victims had been picked up the night before on a minor charge and spent the night in county jail. He was arraigned the following day, given bus fare home, then killed as he crossed from the bus stop to his house. "Sixteen years old, and just caught a bullet," she says.

During her tenure Foster started the 11th District's Men's Club and helped initiate the SODA (Stay Out of Drug Area) Project. But something was still missing. "I kept seeing children on the street. And in the summertime we would always have one or two gang wars, no matter what." Every summer local police would ask her to develop children's programming, but she was up against a few obstacles. Expense, for one: Foster knew that Park District programs like those at Garfield or Orr were inaccessible to kids in her district. "At Garfield, it's like $150 for the first child and $50 for every child after that." And many families feared programs that required a substantial bus trip or a walk that crossed into unfamiliar terrain, which ruled out the Youth Services Project up on North Avenue or the National Guard armory in East Humboldt Park. "That's a whole nother gang, a whole nother territory, and too far for kids to go," says Foster.

So she came up with the idea of a children's choir. Growing up at 66th and Racine, Foster participated in Ogden Park's performing arts program throughout her childhood. "I spent every fall afternoon in choir, dance classes, drama club," she says. "I was the short, fat, ugly stepsister from Cinderella, I was!" Having no teaching experience, Foster thought a choir would be a manageable way to start.

In late 1996 she approached the development council with the idea, but they said no; at that time they were more concerned with getting adults to beat meetings and block clubs. Foster persisted. She drafted a concept paper for a free performing arts center for neighborhood kids and shopped it around to friends. They were enthusiastic, and by June '97 she had a board of directors that included Leslie Walker, a program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation; Vance Henry, now director of CAPS; and Barbara Scott of the Superblock Block Club. The West Humboldt Park Center for the Performing Arts incorporated in September.

A year and a half later, with a $10,000 grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs, the group started an arts program for children in local day-care centers. That was in April '99; a few months later, $20,000 in matching grants from the McCormick Tribune and Seabury foundations launched a performing arts summer camp. "I had butterflies in my stomach, 'cause I wasn't prepared to do the camp yet," says Foster.

She ignored the butterflies and put together an eight-week camp for 30 kids at Malcolm X College. "The kids didn't know what the heck they were signing up for," she says. "Their parents were signing them up to get rid of them for the summer. Some of them took to it right away. Some of them said, 'Uh-uh, I am outta here.'"

Meanwhile, in the summer of '98, she'd noticed some strange new neighbors operating at the corner of Chicago and Ayers. In an open lot littered with needles and broken glass, people were manipulating huge mechanical towers and 20-foot puppets. Foster, who makes it her business to know who's in the neighborhood, went to investigate. It was Redmoon Theater, which had recently relocated its shop operations. "I was thinking they had lost their minds, 'cause I look at all the drug dealers hanging all over the place, and here we got this group of young, white people with their puppet heads," says Foster. That day she introduced herself to Frank Maugeri, the shop's technical director, and tried to explain the need for police protection in the event of outdoor rehearsals. "Frank said, 'Oh no, we're fine! We don't have any problems at all.'" Foster called the police anyway and asked to have a car drive by occasionally.

Early in the summer of '99, as they were gathering participants for the All Hallows' Eve project, a few Redmooners paid a visit to Malcolm X to meet Foster and her kids. Holed up in the sweaty light booth, crowded around a stereo as they prepared rap lyrics for their end-of-camp show, the kids begged Foster to let them get involved. Redmoon promised Foster that as long as she could provide her own workshop space, they would cover instructors and material expenses.

So began Foster's crusade to secure a home. While Redmoon temporarily made room for the kids in their cramped shop, Foster set her sights on Kelly Hall, the underused parish hall of Our Lady of the Angels Church. The priest, Father Nicholas Desmond, wouldn't return her calls, so she contacted 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett. After that "Father Nick called me right away, saying, 'I have your letter right here,'" Foster chuckles. He gave her a key to the building, access to a large room piled high with junk, and a rental contract for a smaller room on the second floor--with no windows, concrete walls, and shaky heating. But it was a home.

Foster's drama program took off. A Redmoon workshop instructor stayed on to direct their Christmas show, and after that a request came in for a Black History Month program. Meanwhile, word spread that something unusual was happening at Kelly Hall. Foster says that at one point she had every kid on Lawndale and Monticello from Chicago to Augusta. Those who haven't joined up have taken notice: Foster saw a lot of neighborhood teenagers at the group's end-of-summer show this year. She recalls them teasing one student: "'Hey Harold, man, hey, I saw you. Look at you man, trying to dance.' But I'm thinking, that's the group Harold would be with if he wasn't here. And what do they do on weekends? Harold and others at that age, they're recruitable. We gotta stop some of these people, and the only way I know how is the performing arts."

A few weeks before Halloween, 13-year-old Kenneth, 10-year-old Makenya, and 13-year-old Carla, all members of Foster's program since 1999, were getting their masks ready. Being involved in the program "gives me energy for the future," said Makenya, one of the group's dance captains. Kenneth said the center is preparing him to be an entrepreneur: "I'm going to own my own dance studio, my own line of clothing." For his shrine, Kenneth was constructing a flaming red sequined mask to represent his favorite wrestler, Owen Hearts. Newcomer Lamar, 14, was making exaggerated, bristly feather-duster eyebrows for a cardboard mask representing his late grandfather. "He was strict," Lamar says, "just if you were doing something stupid and getting in trouble."

This year Foster's kids were chosen to perform the welcoming dance at All Hallows' Eve; they donned masks and led audiences through a tunnel made of tree branches at the start of the show. But it was the feast that turned on a lightbulb for Foster, who would like to organize a similar celebration next year. "What better way for people to get along than to sit at a table over some food? What would happen if I got 20 tables lined up outside on the 3800 block of Chicago Avenue, and everybody got a chance to break bread together, sit across from a stranger and just talk?"

After auditioning singers and hiring a director in mid-October, Foster is finally launching her children's choir this year. Her long-term goal is to build a permanent performing arts center that can serve as a gathering place for both performances and community rituals. If the leap in funding in the last three years is any indication, Foster thinks she and her board can meet the challenge. "We raised $1,218 dollars in our first fiscal year of 1997-'98," says Foster. "We closed out this fiscal year having raised $94,000.

"I want a neon sign high over the building, I want it open seven days a week. When I retire, this will be here. This will belong to the community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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