David’s Harp hits a note with at-risk teens
Brandon Steppe’s life took a turning point in 2006 when a 16-year-old neighborhood boy named RayVaughn showed up to his garage music studio and asked to record raps.
Steppe, then an aspiring hip-hop producer, sent RayVaughn on his way, but he soon returned, more determined than ever. Steppe offered him an offer: free time in the studio in exchange for good grades.
It was the start of the David’s Harp Foundation, a creative East Village youth development organization that provides studio time, technical training and mentoring to over 200 at-risk youth each year.
Steppe and his team of eight part-time mentors and music and video producers work six days a week with mostly teens between the ages of 14 and 18 who are in homeless shelters, foster families and the juvenile justice system.
The most motivated teens are invited to sign a “recording contract”, in which they can save twice as much time in the studio if they improve their grades and improve their behavior. Most children honor their contracts.
One of them is a teenage rapper named Olivia who came to David’s Harp two years ago. At the time, she had fled her group home for two years and had not been to school for a while. Within two months of signing her record deal, Olivia was one of the top students, earning a 3.8 GPA in her high school.
“These kids have skills, but no one has ever held them accountable,” said Steppe, 37.
Last year, program-wide student averages increased 16.9%. Many of the teens enrolled in the program have moved on to college, several are in the process of recording albums and one is now a nationally touring artist.
But for Steppe, the biggest achievement is seeing how teens like RayVaughn have been transformed through the magic of music and mentoring.
“When I saw how he reacted to music, it changed my life,” Steppe said. “When he was in the studio, the heaviness of the day just melted him away. He might be 16 again instead of trying so hard to be 20. “
Steppe grew up in Southeast San Diego, where his family has a long history of community service. Her great-grandmother Rebecca Craft was president of the local chapter of the NAACP and founded the Women’s Civic League of Logan Heights. His now retired grandfather, Cecil Steppe, was director of the county social services department and CEO of the San Diego County Urban League.
Brandon Steppe’s goal was to make his mark in the music community. He played jazz saxophone in high school, performed in the city as a musician, and did some parallel production.
In 2006, he was running a car rental company when his wife encouraged him to make his dream come true. He quit his job, cashed in his 401 (k) and set up the studio in their garage. It wasn’t long before he found his calling with David’s Harp and he never looked back.
“I think it has to do with my Christian faith and finding my purpose,” he said. “It’s seeing young people transform after arriving without hope and finding a place where we meet them where they are.”
Steppe named his foundation after the biblical story of David, who could ward off evil spirits whenever he played his harp for King Saul.
Steppe said his biggest reveal came in 2008. In the midst of the recession, his wife had to shut down her business, her studio bills piled up, his COBRA gap insurance expired and his wife, so pregnant with their first child, was facing health. problems.
The optimistic attitude he practiced around his mentees one day broke down and he broke down and shared his problems. To her surprise, the teens returned the favor and opened up like never before. This style of openness is now the cornerstone of David’s Harp, which became a non-profit organization in 2009.
Steppe’s transparency appealed to 19-year-old David Higareda, who started at David’s Harp Foundation two years ago and is now one of four former mentees studying music and video production at San Diego City College.
The aspiring filmmaker said Steppe “helped me see the blueprint that is possible for my life.”
“Brandon talks to you about his struggles and you feel comfortable sharing yours,” Higareda said. “You feel like he walked in your shoes and you can learn a lot from him.”
David’s Harp runs four programs. Shelter Nights brings the kids from the homeless shelters to the studio every Tuesday night. Voices for Children is a daytime songwriting program for children with court-appointed special advocates. Student Studio is a six-week training program affiliated with 17 local schools and foundations. And the newly launched Studio in a Backpack program takes the six-week program to the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Center.
One of the main people responsible for the growth of David’s Harp is its chairman of the board, Brinton Miller, who is senior vice president of technology strategy and architecture for Discovery Communications, the parent company of Discovery Channel, HGTV, the food web and more.
Through a family connection, Miller has known Steppe for almost 20 years and calls Steppe “the best person I have ever met.”
In 2006, Steppe sought technical advice from Miller to build his garage. He later asked for tips on raising a few thousand dollars to buy some cheap laptops and sound mixers for his mentees.
But Miller grew up playing multiple instruments and knew firsthand how musical training can improve notes, focus, and discipline. He urged Steppe to dream bigger.
“I was the one jumping up and down and saying if you’re going to do it, go big,” Miller said.
Miller tracked down a state-of-the-art movie mixer in Hollywood that they adapted for use in a music studio. It also started a multi-year partnership where Discovery donates its used laptops and video equipment to David’s Harp, who then resells the products to fund their programs.
Miller also helped Steppe partner with Sony, Avid Technology, Adobe and other companies whose equipment and software donations enabled David’s Harp to build a world-class music production studio at its headquarters in 16th Street, which opened in 2012.
“The kids are in awe when they walk in for the first time,” Miller said. “The respect they show for the establishment and for the team working in the establishment is so much greater.”
David’s Harp is managed with a budget of $ 250,000. Miller said the council’s immediate goal is to improve fundraising so the organization can expand its reach in San Diego and hopefully open a second studio in the next two to three years.
Programming Director Joseph Mack and Instructor / Manager Rashaad Graham lead the on-site music mentoring and training program with Steppe. Both have volunteered their time at David’s Harp since 2008 and only recently started earning part-time salaries.
Mack, a longtime local music producer, quit his full-time job at the company in April because he’s so committed to the mission, saying, “It’s inspiring to see the progress we’re making. . “
Graham, a music producer and drummer, said David’s Harp allowed him to combine his two passions: making music and working with children.
“Seeing the success of these children gives us renewed focus. The lives of these children are changing, ”he said.
Among those successes, 20-year-old Jesus Villegas started David’s Harp in high school and is now studying video production at City College.
“When I first arrived I had anxiety with the others, but they listened to me and they helped me find my passion,” Villegas said. “Brandon doesn’t judge me. He lets me describe what I want to do, and then he says, ‘Let’s see how to get you there.’ “
For more information on the David’s Harp Foundation, visit davidsharpfoundation.org.