"Steel Monarchs" is a conflicted term. Metal and butterfly wings. Yet it could describe someone you know, couldn't it? It definitely fits homeless and at-risk kids-kids who've had to be tougher than they should need to be.
It's even more apt as the name of the steel drum band from Monarch School, a public/private institution dedicated to helping homeless kids break the cycle of poverty.
Their stories could break the hearts of unfeeling men. While young enough to be permanently altered by even casual experiences, these kids have seen things many of us will be lucky enough to never experience. They've dealt with parental drug addiction and their subsequent own. They've dealt with abuse, prison time and mental illnesses. They've felt the initial symptoms of starvation.
Monarch is one of the places where good things can happen to kids like these. Founded in 1988 and located in downtown San Diego, the school provides students with basic health care, meals, clothing and family assistance. A sense of normalcy, no mater how institutionalized.
With the addition of the Steel Monarchs drum band, the school is taking them past sustenance, and allowing them a creative outlet-something they couldn't afford if they had to survive on their own.
"The band means a lot to me and my family. All the people in my family were musicians," says one student, whose name is withheld here for privacy reasons. "The band has taught me that nothing comes easily in this world-but it will come with hard work. You can't just depend on yourself. Once or twice you have to ask for help-somebody to catch you. We help each other."
In 1999, Monarch students interested in learning how to play steel drums were handed their first instrument-sledgehammers. Staff at Balboa Park's World Beat Center then helped them pound out their own drums.
Since its inception, more than 40 Monarch kids have gotten involved in the program. There are currently five students in the band, ranging in age from 13 to 16. Some of them live in local shelters, while others have returned to relative stability in a home.
Under the guidance of instructor Robbie Hutchinson, the steel drum band has flourished, landing public and private gigs all over San Diego. Due to educational demands, the Steel Monarchs are able to perform only once a week. But response has been so positive that the band is booked through the end of summer 2005.
"We have to turn away people who want to hire them every day," says Rachelle Jacobson, Monarch creative director and Steel Monarchs founder. "People really support their cause, and they just think it's so cool to have this group of kids coming out there and playing as well as they do, and as professionally as they do, especially in regards to their background."
The band's next big public performance will be at the first stop of this year's Trolley Dances. The approximately two-hour guided tour features site-specific dance performances along seven trolley stops downtown. The Steel Monarchs will provide the music for a piece by famed local choreographer Jean Isaacs, who says she "flipped out" when she heard the band play.
"There's kind of a carnival feeling to the music," she explains. "I'm really going with the feeling of the music, which is very acrobatic and very colorful."
Performances run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. beginning Saturday, Sept. 25 and resuming the following weekend, Oct. 2 and 3. The Steel Monarchs will play live Sept. 25 and Oct. 3. Tours depart from the Little Italy station beginning at 10 a.m., with new audiences departing every half hour.Tickets for Trolley Dances 2004 cost $18 for adults, and $12 for students and seniors. Disabled patrons and kids under 5 attend free. Audience members will also receive an all-day trolley pass with event admission.