30 Years of Changing Lives Through the Arts

Dow Elementary School is the oldest school building still standing in Houston. A major restoration effort is underway, but not to make it into an historical museum. Dow is still a working school, home to an organization that for 30 years has been using the arts to change lives. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports.

When Alice Valdez moved from El Paso to Houston in the mid-70s she was shocked to discover the dearth of musical education offered in Houston Schools. Her desire to teach music and her involvement with her church's annual festival developed over the years into MECA, Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts.

"Our goal is to use the arts to help the students stay in school, graduate from high school and go on to college."

MECA's home is DOW Elementary School, in the Historic 6th Ward. Its classrooms are still in use for classical and ethnic musical training, all forms of dance, art and architecture classes. It has after school and summer programs, tutoring and counseling and the list of what MECA does goes on, each effort having the common goal of having a positive effect on young lives. Vanessa Cerda-Alonza says her life changed when she was 12-years-old.

"Alice Valdez came knocking at my door and she said to my mother,' I need your daughter, I need her to sing for this play and she sings good so you need to let me take her'. So right then and there I started changing. She took me on the MECA van, I remember that day so clearly and ever since I think I've belonged to MECA."

Cerda-Alonzo is 25 now and she still performs with Mariachi MECA a group that has performed around the world, from Vietnam to Northern Ireland. Alice Valdez says the world travel offers young Houstonians broader world view.

"I remember when we were in Ireland they were very shocked to find white young children who were poor."

Valdez says they had never seen whole neighborhoods full of poor people who were not Hispanic or African American.

Jesus Romero was about to drop out of school when MECA's musical education offered a counterpoint to the difficulties he'd been experiencing.

"They were always big on do your school work first and then practice, so they taught me a lot of discipline. You know, there's time to play and there's time to work."

Alice Valdez says that is the very result for which MECA strives.

"Stanford University did a study over a lengthy period of time of the affects of the arts with students and how well they did with academics. They discovered that students who are involved with the arts are just more well rounded human beings. They also just do better academically."

For more on MECA's programs and the 30th Anniversary events this week that include a fund raiser to help restore Dow Elementary you'll find a link at kuhf.org.

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...