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A Youth Orchestra for Chinese-Americans Widens Its Reach

A musical program in Oakland, California, gives children of Chinese-American families a safe place to spend their free time. Sherlyn Chew says the program is for students who might have nothing else to do after school ends for the day.

SHERLYN CHEW: "A lot of our students are what you call you know, latch-key children where the parents work long hours in restaurants."

Two of the students are not Chinese: Alejandro Chavez and Tyler Thompson.

Neither Alejandro nor Tyler speaks Chinese. But they have become important players in the program's orchestra. She says she saw something special in them.

SHERLYN CHEW: "Music for all students should be fun, but it is a discipline. You have to -- you have to practice. And both of them were willing to do that."

Tyler Thompson attended a school near his mother's workplace in Oakland's Chinatown neighborhood. There, he learned songs in Chinese from Ms. Chew.

SHERLYN CHEW: "One day he said to me he said, 'You know, my mother comes home from work very tired and I would sing her the songs you teach me and I'm able to make her feel better.' And I said, you know, what a nice kid."

Ms. Chew discovered that Tyler Thompson could sing Chinese opera.

TYLER THOMPSON: "It was a challenge to me at first to actually, like, understand it."

Tyler says it was also hard for some of his Chinese friends to understand why he wanted to sing Chinese opera.

TYLER THOMPSON: "I didn't see any problem with it but they did, and I know it would probably be the same vice versa if they were, if like, I heard one Asian kid singing some like really old school R&B [rhythm and blues] songs. Like I would just be like, you know, 'What do you know about that?'"

Alejandro Chavez has also done well in the program since Ms. Chew discovered him ten years ago. Alejandro plays an ancient instrument called the Sheng.

ALEJANDRO CHAVEZ: "Just being able to say I play an instrument from ancient China. It's, you know, I have history in my hands."

Alejandro says being part of the orchestra has opened his mind.

ALEJANDRO CHAVEZ: "Well it's taught me not to be, you know, Latinos here, you know, white people here, you know, so I'm mixed together. It's like that. And it's really changed my life. Really, because if I weren't here, where would I be?"

Ms. Chew says she hopes all her students will learn to better understand not just the music but each other. She also hopes the children will remember everything they have learned after they leave the orchestra. I'm Christopher Cruise.