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From documentaries to jazz bands, D.C. arts center fosters talent, passion in low-income youth

Monday - 7/28/2014, 6:42am  ET

SitarStudents.JPG
Precious Lambert and Alejandro Marquez are two students at Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
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Discovering talent and community at Sitar

WTOP's Rachel Nania reports

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WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, 19-year-old Precious Lambert seriously considered dropping out of high school.

"I just didn't feel as safe as I should have, and to be honest, it didn't feel like a priority to me," says Lambert, of Southeast D.C.

"It just so happens that my two best friends dropped out in ninth grade year, and that meant more to me than anything because we were all supposed to graduate together -- walk across the stage like, ‘We did it.'"

Lambert didn't get to walk across the stage with her best friends, but she walked by herself and received her diploma.

Finishing high school is just one accomplishment Lambert is celebrating this year. A documentary film she made about dropping out of school, called "Doing it for Me," is gaining national attention at film festivals in Bethesda, Annapolis and West Chester, Pennsylvania, to name a few.

Lambert says she has always been interested in filmmaking, but it wasn't until she was 18 that she had the chance. Through Urban Alliance, Lambert was placed in an internship at Sitar Arts Center, a community arts education organization in Adams Morgan that focuses on low-income youth.

After working at Sitar for a few months, Lambert started taking photography and documentary classes at the center. It was in her documentary class where she pitched the idea of making a film on teens who struggle to stay in school.

"I'm born and raised in D.C., and I've just seen so many people drop out, so many people who didn't finish because of gang violence or just anything in general," Lambert says.

The film focuses on Lambert's two best friends, Jessica and Victoria, who dropped out of school and are struggling to get a grasp on their future. Lambert also stars in the film, appearing to encourage Jessica and Victoria to get their lives back on track.

"There are other things you can do than just stay at home," Lambert says. "You can never say ‘no' to your education."

Lambert's persistence with her friends paid off. Jessica is currently in a GED program, and has plans to apply to college to study journalism. She's also taking classes at Sitar in creative writing and photography.

In addition to sharing her message through the film, Lambert is passing her experiences on to younger students at Sitar. She's working as a camp intern in the center's creative writing class, and she's helping the students with the production of the summer musical, "The Wiz."

Helping Kids Succeed Through Creative Arts

According to Sitar Arts Center Executive Director Maureen Dwyer, Lambert's success story is one of many at the center, which offers visual, digital and performing arts education in programs afterschool and on the weekends. But Dwyer doesn't measure success in terms of becoming a professional artist; she measures it in terms of becoming an adult.

"In addition to learning their art form, we are really upholding 21st-century skills," Dwyer says. "Our goal is that each of our students goes on to be a successful, contributing adult. They're learning to be accountable, to have initiative, to communicate well and to collaborate with other students and with adults."

For the past five years, 100 percent of the high school seniors who take classes at Sitar have been accepted into college, including Lambert, who attends the University of the District of Columbia.

Sitar, which is in its 14th year, sees about 350 school-aged children during the school year, and an additional 200 in the early childhood program and 120 in the summer camp. And while 80 percent of the students there are from low-income households, Sitar is not free for anyone; tuition operates on a sliding scale so that every family invests something into the education.

"We feel it's really important that the kids and the families are committed to the program and to the artistic growth," Dwyer says.

Most of the faculty members at Sitar are volunteer artists in the community. "They love the arts and they love the kids and they want to make sure every child has an arts education," Dwyer says.

Creating an Identity, Finding a Home

Ten years ago, Alejandro Marquez had never played an instrument. The Petworth- based student came to Sitar at age 8 and started taking piano lessons; a few years later, he switched to bass.

"There's nothing wrong with trying," Marquez says about first picking up an instrument.

Now, Marquez plays in a local D.C. band. He says his favorite part about performing is soloing.

"I get to just go into my own musical world and pretend like I'm a rock star; a famous bass player, so it always feels nice," he says.

This summer, Marquez, 18, is helping younger musicians advance their skills at Sitar's camp. In the fall, he will attend George Mason University to study music education.

"I learned here -- all the music theory, how to do everything," Marquez says. "When I see these kids [at camp], I remember back in the day when I would come in and be a kid who didn't know much. I just always try to help out and remember the values that I learned here, such as always trying and never forgetting where you came from. And that some values don't just apply with music or arts; you can also apply them to your life."

More than launching the careers of artistically talented students, such as Lambert and Marquez, Sitar's Dwyer says the center helps to encourage students to express themselves creatively in a safe space.

"If I could describe [Sitar] in one word, I would describe it as my identity," Marquez says. "I would describe it as not just some random arts center in D.C.; it's been a part of my life, and it's helped shape the man I am today."

Lambert, who plans to continue making documentaries about her community, and maybe one day aim for Hollywood, calls Sitar "home."

"It's a safe place, it's a place where you can go when there's trouble out and you just want to go somewhere … and be creative," she says. "Even though I haven't been here that long, it's just home."

Watch the trailer for Lambert's documentary, 'Doing It For Me.'

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