On a Saturday morning, 15-year old Timothy Hillard leaves his home in the South Bronx to head towards Mott Haven Academy to attend an after school performing arts program.
Once the doors open, iPhones are pressed against the windows as his peers film themselves.
practicing dance routines over and over again. The once-barren school is filled with music and song. Some students push exploratory props out, placing them in the center of the gym, others begin stretching out their body and vocal cords.
As one professor calls out to the students, now filing into the small dance room with mirrors facing them in every direction, Hillard—who is described as timid and quiet—springs to life. As hip-hop music blares and as other kids stomp their feet to the beat, Hillard flashes a confident smile, rapping his part of the song.
The once-timid boy who preferred to be behind the scenes was gone, the lights and focus now on him.
“I felt like I could do anything after that, you know. I felt like I could reach new heights. I felt amazing,” Hillard said.
Hillard is one of several students in Haven Kids Rock, an after school arts program aimed at assisting children in foster care and the child welfare system in the South Bronx. Students with a wide array of talents audition for a chance to learn how to act, dance, song write and sing.
The program also produces original musicals and plays addressing the issues students face growing up in the area.
“I think the arts are important in any school but you can really see the impact of the arts in underserved communities,” said founder Nef Jones. “Music, dance and acting can be a vehicle for self expression for our kids, who often face seemingly insurmountable challenges.”
When he was just 9, Hillard signed up for the program when all of his friends auditioned and joined it. After six years of monologuing, acting and witnessing how productions are made backstage, he now hopes to pursue music and theater as a career once he graduates high school. His mentors often describe him as having sheer raw talent—something they can’t teach.
“I have so many different opportunities, and I have so many paths in my life that I can go down,” Hillard said. “It really showed me something that I’m good at and I could be even better.”
Students from the program have gone on to be featured in national commercials, music videos and much more.
Sophomore Natalie Flores matches Hillard’s enthusiasm. “The program helped me, it gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have outside,” she said.
Flores received a full-ride scholarship to attend Repertory Company High School for Theater & Arts for Music and is currently represented by Brewer Talent Management. She is also geared to be the first in her family to attend and finish higher education.
She thought this feeling would pass within the last five years but now she wants to fully pursue performing arts.
“That’s what you want,” program director Jones said. “You want them to actually fall in love and take off.”
That love, Jones said, helps students feel more comfortable about themselves and boosts their confidence. Eleven-year-old Heaven said she suffers from anxiety and this program helps her combat that.
“What I love about it is it helps me communicate with people. I can express how I feel with just singing or acting or dancing,” Heaven said. “It really connects to you in life, which sometimes can help you feel good about yourself.”
With four years in the program, she is already beginning to write songs that may be featured in different plays in the future.
Music has been a passion and an escape for Jones for years. Growing up in Alphabet City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she was exposed to a lot of violence similar to what her kids see.
When Jones started the program with husband Jimi Bones in 2008, it just involved music. A friend sent over 10 pianos and guitars to get them started. Then when Mott Haven Academy was being built, Jones helped design the dance studio and began fundraising to help the first class of students.
By 2014, around 20 of her students got booked in a NYS Lottery commercial – and that was when news outlets like Good Morning America began paying attention to them.
The coverage prompted a flood of donations to pour in and by 2015, Haven Kids Rock received its first grant, which helped support the program for the next five years.
Confused on what to do next, Bones suggested doing a musical and when he and Jones went to the students about it, everyone was on board. The music program then opened up to dancing and acting.
“They’re never gonna forget being on stage in 2019, or in 2018, we had an LED wall,” Jones said. “I mean, it was just extraordinary.”
Unstoppable was an original play Jones helped create in 2018. She revamped it to help address the ‘explosive’ nature of 2020 and 2021, when many students were gripped by the surge of gun violence, Black Lives Matter protests and issues occuring on the border.
Hillard had an important role when he performed Unstoppable back in November where he and a friend sang a song about Black Lives Matter and the issues of police brutality.
“I had to learn a lot and I had to put myself in the shoes of these black kids, these black girls, these black people who were shot, who were discriminated against,” Hillard said. “And in the end, I feel proud that I was able to showcase what’s really going on in our world.”
The group is preparing for their next production, which will focus on four families discussing life in homeless shelters. Students will help produce, perform, write songs and build sets,
Practicing his routine and monologues every day, Hillard hopes that when he succeeds, he’ll be able to give back to the program.
“I don’t want to just be here,” Hillard said. “I wanted to be across the world for many kids to have this opportunity because this program helped me so much and so many of my friends.”