The Moonlight Youth Theatre choir performs at Copley Symphony Hall in June. Courtesy Moonlight Cultural Foundation

A nonprofit organization founded in 1974, Moonlight Cultural Foundation contributes several hundred thousand dollars annually to Moonlight Stage Productions. Together the City of Vista and Moonlight Cultural Foundation present outstanding, year-round live theater experiences and participatory arts education to nearly 80,000 residents of San Diego’s North County and beyond each year. Our primary goal is to increase availability of live theater and theater education for all regional youngsters and their parents, particularly Hispanic and Latino young people who comprise the majority of students in North County’s 13 school districts (53 percent in Vista Unified), as well as military families.

Seeing firsthand the incredible transformation that these youth undergo as a result of an arts education makes it very apparent that including the arts in education is not a luxury but a necessity. Organizations need to realize that arts education is, in fact, a core program, hence the transformation from STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) to STEAM.

It has been well documented that creative activities are some of the building blocks of child development. Motor skills in young children, decision making, enhanced academic performance, visual learning, inventiveness, cultural awareness, language development and improved self-esteem are just a few of the benefits of an arts education. Multiple studies have shown that students who do not have art classes miss out on this important creative outlet, could face difficulty with core subjects, have more behavioral problems and a higher dropout rate. Additionally, 93 percent of Americans value the arts as vital to a well-rounded education.

Toria Watson

Then why are we eliminating arts in our education programs when one out of six jobs in Southern California is now in the creative industries and the creative economy is the second largest regional business sector?

The state’s budget crisis has significantly reduced the amount of time spent on arts education by 22 percent. By 2009, 60 percent of districts had shifted Arts & Music Block Grant funds away from these programs and 20 percent had eliminated arts programs altogether.

Organizations should support the arts because it is a sound investment with significant ROI. The arts generate prosperity, are economic drivers, create jobs, produce tax revenue, revitalize rural areas and inner cities, foster well being and promote critical thinking and innovation — all of which is critical to today’s 21st century work force.

The greatest gift that I personally was given by an arts education, and thankfully by a very generous donor, was being exposed to different ideas and lifestyles, families, thought processes and socio-economic ideas. My experience studying theater and dance gave me a well-rounded background and provided me with opportunities that I otherwise would not have had.

As executive director of the Moonlight Cultural Foundation, my goal is to expand current funds available to give more children an opportunity to engage in the foundation’s arts programs. I also wish to increase volunteer opportunities associated with Moonlight Cultural Foundation programs, expand the corporate portfolio for the summer season as well as new spring and fall programming in order to provide funds to support Moonlight Stage Productions’ costs associated with larger scale productions, implementing new technologies, drawing top talent on stage, in the orchestra and technical professionals.

I encourage organizations to join us in ensuring that the arts are not taken away from our youth. Help youth build self-esteem and confidence. Help them find their creative voice. Help them discover opportunity and learn about other cultures. The creative industry is one of the major driving forces of our economy and yet 85 percent of surveyed business executives indicated that they are currently having difficulty recruiting individuals who possess creative ability.

There are many more Celeste Butlers out there in the world and we need to feed that talent so that it grows and produces positive outcomes for youth and our entire society.

Toria Watson is the executive director of the Moonlight Cultural Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The foundation was formed in 1974 and is the fundraising arm as well as the producing partner for Moonlight Stage Productions, a program of the City of Vista.

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