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No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind

Moody alumna helps Chicago’s FAME Center expand music and art programming for under-resourced kids
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • February 1, 2023

When Michal Skiba, 12, wanted to play saxophone, his family’s first instinct was to approach FAME (Fortson Arts Music Education) Center, a nonprofit on Chicago’s South Loop, where Michal had attended a summer camp in 2021.

“We didn’t have a saxophone teacher,” FAME founder Sheila Fortson said, “so we went out and hired one.”

Hailing from Bedford Park, Michal qualified for a full scholarship from the nonprofit. Soon he was taking private saxophone lessons from FAME Center and performing in a recital.

Michal Skiba

Saxophone student Michal Skiba has a full scholarship at FAME Center.

“He is so talented,” Fortson said. “And when you meet this kid, the difference between him now and when he first came is night and day. And if you say something to him about his saxophone, his shoulders go back and there’s a big smile on his face.”

Fortson grins. “That’s why I get up in the morning.”

‘We don’t want any kid left behind’

Fortson has a good reason to get up every morning. At a time when music and fine arts programs are often cut from school and community budgets, the 2003 Moody Bible Institute graduate provides arts education to youth from underserved communities, often at a free or reduced rate.

Fortson is a crusader for giving kids of all socioeconomic levels an opportunity to explore the arts. It’s why she founded FAME Center in 2018 and recently doubled its space by renting 2,500 square feet inside Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.

“We look at the violence that’s going on in Chicago with kids that lack purpose,” Fortson said. “When kids realize they have a talent, an ability, it gives them purpose—a sense of identity. They now see themselves as an artist, musician, writer, or actor, and get involved in a community. And it’s a positive community.”

Girls practicing violin

Two violin students enjoy playing a duet at FAME Center.

So far, 1,200 students have taken private and group lessons in art, theater, creative writing, story time, and music (piano, guitar, drums, violin) through FAME Center.

“Families are just trying to put food on the table, so that’s a luxury that is out of reach for a lot of students in under-resourced communities,” Fortson said as the sound of piano scales and violins can be heard in the background. “We don’t want any kid left behind when it comes to the arts.”

‘Every child should have a chance’

One student who takes art classes at FAME Center lost her dad to COVID last year. The girl’s mom recently sent a thank-you note to Fortson for offering art classes. Fortson smiles. “It’s so neat to see how art really does allow children to express their emotions,” she said, pointing to some of the girl’s artwork on the studio wall. “Little kids don’t always know how to say what they're feeling. But I think music and art allow kids to be able to express themselves.”

This year FAME Center gave more than $50,000 in scholarship funding to students who had a need. About 30 percent of the students have partial or full scholarships. (Fortson’s goal is 60 percent or more.) FAME also offers instrument rentals and donations. “I just thought every child should have a chance, regardless of their family’s economic circumstance,” Fortson said.

The impact of FAME is gratifying. “It’s exciting for us to see kids blossom and grow, to see their self-confidence grow,” she says. “Scholarships and providing financial assistance are a big part of why we exist and a big part of our mission and vision.”

Growing up with music

The oldest of three siblings, Fortson grew up in Atlanta listening to Moody Radio and taking piano and violin lessons. “My mother saw to it! She was dedicated to making sure I studied hard,” she said.

After taking lessons from age 8 through high school, Fortson went to Moody for the five-year music degree in piano performance.

Dr. Un-Young Whang was her favorite music teacher. “Oh, I love her. We’re still friends,” said Fortson, who directed the gospel choir for five years and also sang in the Moody Chorale, touring in Guatemala and Mexico one year and Norway and Sweden another year. “That’s kind of what inspired me. I know that children who have an opportunity to study the arts and music do better in general.”

She went on to earn a master’s degree in interdisciplinary art, which exposed her to drama, dance, creative writing, and other art forms. She started a business as a private music teacher. When she needed to recruit more teachers, her dad suggested she turn her business into a nonprofit. Dr. Thomas Fortson earned a PhD in administration and higher education and has served on the Moody Board of Trustees for more than 32 years. His daughter followed his advice, and FAME Center was born.

Sheila Fortson

Sheila Fortson applies her Moody training to nurturing kids’ creativity at FAME Center.

“My favorite verse is Genesis 1:1: ‘In the beginning, God created,’” Fortson said. “I really believe each human being is born with creativity inside of them. It’s exciting for me to be able to create a place where students can find a creative outlet. So whether it’s music or visual art or creative writing, theater, whatever that outlet is for them, I want a place where they can discover what they love most and find what they were created to do.”

New expanded space

FAME opened its first location at Daystar Academy in the South Loop with private music lessons, soon adding art, computer coding, creative writing, and theater classes. When the doors closed during the 2020 pandemic, Fortson decided to put all their classes online and offer them virtually and for free.

“We asked parents to donate what they could, and that was a way we were able to survive,” she said. “Parents were extremely generous and donated probably more than if we had charged for the lessons, so it was quite a blessing.”

As FAME returned to in-person classes, the organization soon needed more meeting space. Fortson reached out to Roy Patterson, community relations director at Moody Bible Institute, who put her in touch with Thomas Anderson, the campus pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Though not affiliated with Willow Creek, FAME Center was able to expand its capacity by moving into the church’s facilities.

The bright new location welcomes youth and adults to a large reception room with exposed brick, comfortable couches and chairs, a cheerful kids’ craft area, a coffee center, and big windows in each of the studios for natural light. The center is equipped with five pianos (four of them donated, including a Steinway). Currently, 14 teachers (three of them Moody alumni) give in-person and virtual lessons at FAME.

FAME also offers a full-day summer camp over six weeks (63 kids participated last summer) as well as free events on the first Friday of the month, such as a Shakespeare play and a violin concert. In 2023 FAME will also offer a full-day spring break camp.

“We served about 400 kids this year through programs and partnerships with schools and community organizations,” Fortson said. “I hope to double it every year. I’d like to serve 800 kids next year and 1,600 the following year. My hope is that we outgrow the space here. You know what? If we keep doubling the number of students we’re serving, we’ll need our own building.”

Lesson time

FAME Center caters to the young but also the young at heart. After school on a Tuesday afternoon, as children arrive for music lessons, AJ (Anna Joy) Buegel, a 2016 Moody graduate, is all smiles as she greets her students: a grandmother named Laura and her 6-year-old grandson, Atticus. Laura typically goes first while Atticus plops into a poofy bean bag chair in the craft corner and plays with Fortson’s friendly poodle, Duke Ellington.

AJ and Laura

FAME teacher AJ Buegel ’16 teaches Laura to read music.

The grandma and grandson started taking lessons from Buegel at a different school last spring. When Buegel began teaching at FAME, Laura and Atticus followed her “because we like her so much,” says Laura, a singer/songwriter who plays music by ear. “It’s the music theory that Anna’s teaching me. I need to know what the notes are so that when I play with other musicians and they ask what key we’re in, I won’t be like, uhh.”

When it’s Atticus’s turn, he chooses the bigger of two pianos in Buegel’s studio and demonstrates how to play and sing intervals (minor second, major second, minor third, major third . . .). Then they clap out half notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and rests. “Good job!” Buegel says. “Just wait until we get to 16th notes.”

Using fun and affirming teaching techniques she learned as a music major at Moody Bible Institute, Buegel makes music theory exciting with statements like “See why that was crazy? We’re going to make our brains keep exploding.”

AJ and Atticus

AJ Buegel ’16 makes piano lessons fun for 6-year-old Atticus.

After Atticus successfully plays a G scale with the right hand but struggles to play it with the left, Buegel shows him how, then assigns homework to practice the right hand “and the left hand if you’re feeling brave.”

“The thing I like most about teaching at FAME,” Buegel says, “are the students themselves. I love every single one, and I enjoy learning from them (usually more than I teach them) about music and how crazy and lovely and wonderful it is.

“I’m grateful that the administration team is always looking for more ways to make lessons financially reachable for any student,” she added, “and that they’re focused on finding ways that the arts can connect and make us more full and creative human artists.”

Joshua Wen, a 2022 Moody graduate who grew up in Guangzhou, China, was classically trained in piano, violin, and guitar before completing a music degree at Moody. He teaches guitar and ukulele on Wednesdays, focusing on creative ways to help students understand theory and technique and love their instrument.

Lexie and Lili

FAME teacher Lili Tinaglia ’17 helped voice student Lexie nab a role in Anastasia.

A 2017 Moody alum, Lili Tinaglia, teaches voice and piano on Thursdays. Lili credits a vocal pedagogy class at Moody for teaching her practical ways to teach voice lessons. This year she helped one of her students, 9-year-old Alexandrya (Lexie), learn an audition piece, “Once Upon a December,” which won Lexie the role of Little Anastasia in the current touring musical, Anastasia. “I’ve been teaching her virtually on Zoom because she travels all over the place,” Tinaglia said. “She’s a good student.”

Partners in the arts

In addition to providing private and group classes at their South Loop location, FAME has worked with nonprofits like By the Hand Club for Kids to offer after-school music and arts classes, such as drums, guitar, and painting, to kids at their near north Cabrini-Green location and on the Moody campus.

Recently one of the FAME teachers taught teens at By the Hand to play instruments and form a band that performed live.

“Art and music are life-changing for kids,” says Donnita Travis, founder and executive director of By the Hand. “Not all kids are interested in sports, and art and music are another way to not only engage kids and help them to see their God-given gifting and potential but also there are great careers in arts and music. So to have professionals like Sheila come alongside us and be able to offer that level of arts enrichment is real key.”

Fortson is working on a new partnership with Wentworth Gardens, a housing project behind Progressive Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side. “We went over there this past week to talk with them about bringing music and art classes to their kids in the afternoon,” she said. “It would be free to the kids. We’d have to order the instruments, provide the art supplies, and raise money to fund the program and pay our teachers.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Fortson, who spends a lot of time planning, dreaming, and fundraising. “That’s what keeps me up at night: praying for the funding to keep everything going,” she said. “But so far God has provided for us.”

Building relationships

Although FAME Center is not faith-based, members of the board of directors are believers, and Fortson practices the “relationship evangelism” she saw modeled and preached by Dr. Joe Stowell, former president of Moody.

Sheila Fortson

Sheila Fortson ’03 loves offering arts and music to underserved youth.

“I get the opportunity to share my faith by just opening our doors to people from all walks of life—people, teachers, and students from a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “We get an opportunity to show people who Jesus is by just building a relationship with them and them seeing Christ in us.”

That may mean telling people about her church or that she’s praying for them or remembering to give the glory to the Lord first.

“In a day and age where people want to know who you are first—before they may want to know what you believe—we need to live it out first,” she said, “and develop relationships with people where, when the time is right, we get a chance to share what we believe. Then it’s up to the Lord. It’s not our job to save people, it’s His job. We just have to be salt and light.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute. Linda has traveled the world writing for the magazine, including a trip across Europe. Linda is a veteran copywriter who counts Christianity Today, Regular Baptist Press, and Focus on the Family among her past stops prior to joining Moody in 2012.