updated 04/02/2014 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 04/03/2014 AT 11:30 AM ET
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ana Jimenez-Hami’s father, Freddy, never let her forget about the importance of helping those who weren’t as fortunate as she.
“He’d always say, ‘You have to learn to give back to others in need,’ ” recalls Jimenez-Hami, 52, who now lives in Irvine, Calif.
Two decades ago, when her father, mother and 13 others were murdered by gunmen during a robbery at Freddy’s jewelry store, Jimenez-Hami’s life was turned upside down.
Searching for some way to make sense of her devastating loss, she thought back to her father’s words and they inspired her to create the Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center, which uses the arts – be it painting, music or dance – to transform the lives of low-income children in crime-ravaged Santa Ana, Calif.
“When he died, his words about ‘giving back to others’ were the very first thing that came to my mind,” she says. And she put the words into action: The organization she founded in 2000 has touched the lives of more than 15,000 children – often at no charge to their parents.
Martha Rivera was one of those struggling who found her way to Jimenez-Hami’s center.
Rivera, who came from a troubled, impoverished family, wanted to learn to play piano, but staff members quickly discovered she was a natural musician, capable of playing numerous instruments.
“I want to cry when I tell her story,” recalls Jimenez-Hami. “She was on the verge of becoming just another statistic – either ending up in a gang or getting pregnant.”
With the help of music instructors – and academic tutors – Rivera, now 23, went from a D student to graduating as valedictorian of her high school. Recently, she earned a master’s degree in psychology from Harvard.
“I am where I am today because of her guidance,” she says. “She instilled in me the belief that education is the most important thing in my life.”
Besides focusing on the arts, the center – with its 45 part-time instructors and five full-time administrators – has branched out into other programs that include job training and family wellness classes for stressed-out parents of disabled children, many of whom are students at the center.
“Studies have shown that they have a much higher rate of falling into depression,” says Jimenez-Hami, who has a doctorate in educational psychology.
The arts, she insists, is much more than just teaching kids how to paint pretty pictures and strum the guitar.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t value arts as much as sports,” she says. “But the arts are food for the soul. They help make creative minds, and that’s exactly what we need – creative minds – to make a better society.”
Freddy would be proud.
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