Luis Castillo still remembers the first time he walked into the theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts more than 20 years ago.
"Just walking in, smelling the air and feeling the energy of the place," he said. "It was truly magical, it was bigger than life."
Back then, he was 17, had gotten wrapped up in petty crime and was kicked out of high school for selling pot. Placed in Orange County's alternative education program, he got the chance to participate in Summer at the Center, where teens who are on probation, involved in gangs, in foster care or facing other hardship, spend two weeks learning about musical theater. That experience was a turning point in his life.
"For some of us, it was the first time that someone actually said we were good at something," he said. "And that stayed with me and continues to."
The program culminates with a Broadway musical-style revue. For this year's 25th anniversary performance on Saturday, Castillo will join the 40 teens on stage to sing the lead on "Twist and Shout."
The program is a collaboration with the Orange County Department of Education and is offered to high-risk teens in the county's alternative education program ACCESS (Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services).
"These kids have struggled in academics, it hasn’t come easy for them, school hasn’t gone really well," said Sidra Gaines, coordinator for education programs for OCDE. "So to use art as a way to encourage them and support them and to see what’s possible for them, I think, is the most important thing."
Today, Castillo works as a mentor for kids who are on probation or in foster care. For the past few years, he's stopped by rehearsals to speak with the teens.
At a practice this week, he told them, "I’m not here to impress you guys or to try to change you or tell you guys to do something different. The one thing that I do ask is that you think about the choices that you guys are making."
"It was encouraging to hear his experience and the way this program changed him to be a better person," said Caribel, 15 (we're not using last names to protect the identities of the teens).
She dreams of being an actor when she grows up and she's most excited to sing "The Circle of Life." During the program, she said she's learned about about "teamwork and what it is to be a friend."
For completing the program, students receive five fine arts credits.
"I think they walking in thinking, ‘These are gonna be easy credits,’ " said teaching assistant Angelica Roque, who’s spent five summers with the program. “And we walk in with the goal of having them realize that they have value and that they have a lot of choices they can make.
"And they can either make the same ones they’ve been making or they can make different ones and either way there’s power in them. We just sneakily use song and dance to convince them of that stuff."
Performances are free and open to the public Saturday, July 30 at 4:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m in the center's Samueli Theater.