Heart of Los Angeles CEO Tony Brown (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

More than an afterschool program, Heart of Los Angeles is a pipeline to success for children of color.

Nestled in the heart of Los Angeles—is Heart of Los Angeles, HOLA if you’re cool. And cool things are happening here when it comes to empowering youth to find their dreams.

“Honestly, I would say everything I am now as a person is because of HOLA,” said Nana Ampofo, an HOLA student.

“In college, finding myself, I knew who I was because of the opportunities I got through HOLA. I came into my strength through those opportunities.”

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“I feel like HOLA’s helped me feel comfortable in my own skin,” said David McFarlin, an HOLA student. “I wasn’t really surrounded around a Black environment; it was predominantly Hispanics in my household.

“Everybody here, it’s a very inclusive environment, people from everywhere, Latinos, African Americans, so I feel like just being comfortable in my own skin.”

From left are HOLA student David McFarlin, HOLA CEO Tony Brown and HOLA Senior Director of Community Engagement and Communications Jacqueline Turner (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

“You know I think what makes us special is that we meet the kids where they’re at and we believe in their potential to go where they want to go,” said HOLA CEO Tony Brown.

“We help them to get there that’s what I think makes Heart of L.A. special and whether that’s a volunteer or staff member, we’re all on that same page, where we do a lot of listening and then we figure out a plan together how we get that child to where they want to go.”

Brown worked at HOLA from 1993 to 1995 and returned to HOLA as executive director in 2006. His background experience includes teaching, director in athletics and sports business management.

He has received numerous awards including the LA Business Journal Leadership Excellence Award in 2012, Bank of America’s Local Hero award, and was included on Town & Country’s Top 50 Philanthropists list in 2015. In 2017, he was recognized by the James Irvine Foundation for Leadership Innovation. Most recently, Tony was proudly named a 2022 Durfee Foundation Stanton Fellow.

“We’ve been around for 35 years so those programs have evolved over time,” said Brown about HOLA’s curriculum.

“We’ve had theater before, we have music: orchestras, big bands, rock bands, choirs. We have visual arts, we have over 20 different art classes, mediums offered.”

HOLA is a nonprofit organization that helps youth overcome barriers through exceptional, free, integrated programs and personalized guidance in a trusted, nurturing environment. Brown shared a little more about the programs they offer.

“Our elementary education programs, which we call Smart Start, gives them not only the fundamentals of language, arts and math but it also allows them to receive, like all of our programs honestly, family support services,” said Brown.

“We have music: orchestras, big bands, rock bands, choirs.” —Tony Brown, HOLA CEO (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

Brown continued, “We listen to their parents, they said ‘we want to make sure that our kids do well in school, please help them with staying on grade level and graduate from one grade to the next, to the next, ultimately graduate high school.’

“We have academic programs that we’ve had all sorts of wonderful internal means, but we start with six-year-olds and then we’ll see them through.”

Ampofo and McFarlin are two students HOLA are currently seeing through college. They shared how the programs at HOLA changed their lives. McFarlin, a nursing major, shared how HOLA helped him prepare for college.

“I became a better essay writer,” said McFarlin. “I feel like I was able to better communicate what I wanted to do in my future.”

“I really owe everything to HOLA,” said Ampofo. She’s currently in London having been accepted to six grad schools and a finalist in the Fulbright Scholar Program. Ampofo is going to grad school to study museum education.

“It gave me the backbone I needed to be the person I am now in my career and the work that I do. It also gave me the opportunity to even go to college, the first one in my family to graduate school or to even go to college and even going to college out of state too.”

Ampofo continued, “My goal is to work in museums and create opportunities for people of color and also for people who are incarcerated to provide them a space to display their art but also feel welcome in the art community.”

“They helped me throughout my college journey and they also helped me when I was in middle and high school,” said Aileen Mestats an HOLA employee and alumni. “I got a lot of volunteer opportunities.”

Mestats continued, “They took us on a college tour of all the colleges up North and through there, I found the school I ended up going to, Sacramento State, so I got to visit before I attended.

“It’s honestly a really great program with a lot of opportunities for youth here in the community.”

Brown wants to partner with more schools in South Los Angeles with programs already in a few local schools. He really wants to give access to youth, who might not have these opportunities available to them in their area.

“We want to meet South Los Angeles where it’s at and so we wanted to get into some of the schools, particularly the Black student achievement plan schools,” said Brown. “We’re really intentional about seeking out Black students and making sure that they have equitable opportunities to succeed academically, artistically and human development wise.”

“We have visual arts, we have over 20 different art classes, mediums offered.” —Tony Brown, HOLA CEO (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

HOLA has partnered with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to do the Watts Heart of LA Art Effect.

“They have a beautiful facility on that campus that we were able to work together to reinspire,” said Brown. “They’re teaching art out of that facility.”

“We try to be as inclusive as we can in terms of medium, so we have a range of ceramics, photography, paintings, sculptures,” said Jailyne Olvera, visual arts program manager at HOLA. “We also try to include every single grade up, 1 through 12 in every department that we serve.”

Olvera continued, “For this year, it was ‘We Create, We Heal’ and it was inspired by self-care. A lot of the art that is featured shows what the students felt during lockdown, the opening and post pandemic.

“It’s very open, it’s a really great place for students to come and express themselves.”

“We have great strength and history and being able to do it here,” said Brown. “I believe that every child has the potential to find their success, they just haven’t been given the same opportunity so, this isn’t a matter of will it work? It’s just a matter of will those kids also have access?

“We want to be part of that access solution.”

For more information about Heart of Los Angeles, visit www.heartofla.org.