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Creating Opportunity

Creating Opportunity

Reaching Chicago Communities with Art and Music
  • Kevin Mungons and Darrell Goemaat
  • December 1, 2019

It started with my mother making me take piano lessons,” Sheila Fortson ’03 says, explaining what motivated her to start the FAME Center in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood.

“Growing up, I had parents who loved music and believed in the importance of their children taking music lessons. My two siblings and I took piano lessons, and my sister and I took violin lessons. And when we wanted to quit, they said No!”

Now Sheila has the same conversations with the parents who bring their children to lessons. “We’re starting at square one. Ninety percent of our kids have never had lessons before. So they’re picking up an instrument for the first time—piano, violin, guitar, ukulele. We get to see it from the very beginning—and it’s awesome!ˮ

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We’re visiting FAME Center on a busy Wednesday afternoon, when students are arriving after school. Sheila stands at the door, directing them down the hallway to various studios. True to her roots, she’s recruited several other Moody grads as teachers.

The first studio we visit is set up for a painting class, reflecting Sheila’s passion for teaching all the arts. After graduating from Moody with a music degree, she earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary art, a program that broadened her understanding of other disciplines. “Our vision is to provide music and arts education to every community in Chicago,” she says. “There are communities where the schools don’t have adequate music and arts education. Funding has been cut. There are a lot of underserved communities where the tax dollars don’t pay for arts programs.”

She started teaching here three years ago, thinking of it as a business, and enjoyed a quick growth spurt. When she grew to where she needed to recruit more teachers, her father suggested a different path. Dr. Thomas Fortson earned a PhD in administration and higher education, and has served as a Moody Trustee for 30 years. He thought Sheila should turn her passion into a nonprofit organization, which turned out to be the right answer.

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The next door down, Moises Pacheco ’06 sings and announces chords with the same start-and-stop delivery used by all guitar teachers:

“A-(G CHORD!)-maz-ing (G CHORD!) grace, how (change to C CHORD—no, no, C—that’s it) sweet the (G CHORD!) sound.”

Tekla, his student, sounds smoother with every line, followed by the final “now I see,” which they both strum without any pauses.

Later Moises gives us a condensed version of his life story: graduating from Moody with a music degree, leading worship at area churches, marriage and a family, followed by a growing attachment to his own West-Side community. When it came time to buy a house, Moises waded through the twists and turns (the word “crooked” has dual meaning here), leading him toward a new goal: becoming the honest real estate agent that his community needed. Now successful, he teaches music as a way of giving back. The students call him Mr. Mo, and on Saturdays he also teaches guitar classes in Cabrini-Green at a program called “Innovation City,” where the FAME Center partners with By The Hand ministries.

When Mr. Mo finishes, Josh Wen ’21 uses the same room for a ukulele lesson. A current Moody student, he studies piano with Dr. Un-Young Whang, who was also Sheila's favorite professor, back in the day. Josh grew up in China and learned about Moody from Nathan Lam ’03, who ran sports camps in his hometown of Guangzhou. Anticipating graduation next year, Josh says his experiences have opened his eyes to nontraditional ways of using music in ministry. “I long to go back home to serve my people,” Josh says. “Music education can be a great tool for sharing the gospel.”

Sheila agrees, and came to view her work as a ministry. “That’s what I believe God’s called me to do, I really do. I believe that through music and creativity and art, even through music therapy and computer coding, we can reach the world right here.”

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In the last studio at the end of the hall, Lili Tinaglia ’17 listens to Emmy play “Jingle Bells.” Miss Lili started teaching here before she graduated, and now she also works as an office administrator and worship leader at The Orchard’s Chicago campus. She has several voice students, and credits Dr. Terry Strandt for the one piece of advice that helped her develop as a musician. “At Moody he taught the importance of practicing and what a difference it can make. Be diligent with the gift God gave you.”

Without knowing it, she’s giving us the same advice we’ve heard from each of the other teachers. Practice every day—a habit of personal discipline that quickly turns into a life lesson. Mr. Mo told us how his music degree had helped his real estate business—yes—for all the intangible ways it shaped his character. Above all, just like Sheila’s parents had said years ago, “keep practicing, don’t give up, and NO, you cannot quit!”

“I’ve never heard an adult talk about their music lessons and say, ‘I wish my parents had let me quit,’” Sheila says. “Never.”

Now she sees another benefit to community arts education, as a healing, hopeful way to mend fragmented communities. Everywhere she looks, she sees overscheduled kids (and their Uber parents). “They get burned out, trying to do too many things.”

“Kids need help working through life,” she discovered. “And so do adults. And so hopefully I can impact every tongue, tribe, and nation—right here in Chicago. We can reach out to the South Side and the North Side and the West Side of Chicago, offering inspiration and creating opportunities.”

About the Author

  • Kevin Mungons and Darrell Goemaat

Kevin Mungons is editorial manager of Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute. Darrell Goemaat is a Chicago freelance photographer.