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David's Harp Foundation founder Brandon Steppe oversees two students recordin...

Photo by Matthew Bowler / KPBS

Above:David's Harp Foundation founder Brandon Steppe oversees two students recording an original banda song in one of the Foundation's recording studios in downtown San Diego on June 30, 2021.

Billionaire Gives San Diego Nonprofit A Million Dollar Boost

The David’s Harp Foundation is a local nonprofit that's been bringing at-risk youth together through the arts since 2007.

Brandon Steppe is the founder and director of David’s Harp. He says it started with a music studio he built in his father’s garage in Southeast San Diego.

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“Eventually I let young people come in and trade good grades for studio time in that space,” Steppe said. “What I got to see is that when young people came into that space they were different.”

That studio garage grew into a nonprofit organization that started bringing music into schools, teen shelters and eventually to the juvenile justice system.

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

David's Harp Foundation founder and director Brandon Steppe is pictured during an interview with KPBS at the Moniker Group Warehouse in downtown San Diego, June 30, 2021.

The Inspiration

The Foundation is named after the biblical David and the harp he played to lift the torment of the king. Steppe said just like the king, many of the students are tormented with potential gang involvement, homelessness and even substance abuse.

“When they came into that studio space and they interacted with music, it’s like the torment would be gone,” Steppe said.

He sees other parallels between the biblical story and the young people he serves.

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“It’s a simple story that really just talks about the power of music, but also the fact that these young people are kings and queens and siblings and they’re just beautiful people who have so much potential that is just waiting to be free from that moment of reality and music is that," he said.

David's Harp has opened its doors to about 600 of these "beautiful people" throughout San Diego, giving them more than just fun with music.

“We initially start with art, so we’re teaching young people music production, videography. But in that there’s so many soft skills they learn and that are applicable to not only to their school, but also to the workforce,” Steppe said. “So as they’re learning those skills, they’re learning audio engineering. They’re learning applied physics. They’re learning about light and color and sound and in that process they’re learning the workforce skills that they can translate into the job force.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

David's Harp Foundation staff member, Joseph Mack, works with a former student and fellow staff member on an audio recording console in downtown San Diego, June 30, 2021.

The Students

The Foundation works with what they call “opportunity youth” aged 14 to 24 years old.

“We know that the young people in our program represent young people with the greatest opportunity for success," Steppe said.

He also said the program provides trusted adults to youth in foster care or juvenile detention.

“We all have that one person that we can think back to. If it wasn’t for them we don’t know where we would be,” he explained. “Well, art is the perfect platform to be that adult.”

David’s Harp began bringing sound and music production equipment into local juvenile detention facilities in 2018, reaching young people like Riley, who didn’t want his full name used because he is still on probation.

“When they came, it’s like a little light always came with them. It’s good in there when they came," Riley said. "There were no arguments, no nothing. We just wanted to be here with the music and good people."

Riley has turned his love for music into a career. He now works for the Foundation and said it is crucial to at-risk youth.

"It helps kids out because it helps them get back on their feet," Riley said. "It helps them by being surrounded by good people, good equipment, can’t go wrong.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Former David's Harp Foundation student, Casemi Childress, is interviewed by KPBS in one of the foundation's learning hubs in downtown San Diego, June 30, 2021.

Casemi Childress is another David’s Harp success story. He grew up in a group home.

“I come from a long line of drug dealers, either drug dealers or drug users," Childress said. "Sometimes I have nightmares about it, about what could have been. I definitely think I would have been a menace to my own society. I think I definitely would have been a part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) connected him to David’s Harp because of his love for music.

“I was kind of skeptical because previous programs, they’re often just not what they appear to be. It’s a very uncomfortable environment,” Childress continued. “So, [I] gave it a shot, thinking that this would probably be like the others and was blown away the first day.”

Childress is now the youngest member on the Foundation’s board. Later this year, he will graduate from the University of LaVerne, with plans to become an attorney. But he said music will always be part of his life.

“Music is forever,” Childress continued, “It will always be my place of peace.”

David's Harp provided more than just music to its students throughout the pandemic, offering food distributions, a distance learning hub and mental health support.

“Don’t ever pay it back, pay it forward,” Childress said. “So, just understanding the value of that is something that I take from this program.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Matt Hoffman

A former student and current employee of The David's Harp Foundation, Riley, is pictured during an interview with KPBS in downtown San Diego, June 30, 2021.

The Donation

The group’s work attracted the attention of billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. She gave David’s Harp a no-strings-attached donation of $1 million.

“I have no clue how MacKenzie Scott found out about us, honestly!" Steppe said. "We are a small non-profit here, but what I know is the community is very authentic and the word has spread kind of quickly, nationally.”

Childress has an idea of why Scott chose David’s Harp. “Part of that giving is to allow your initial investment to keep on investing," he said. "What we do here is invest in people. We invest in our youth and in turn we invest in our communities. I would never be in the position I am today had it not been for David’s Harp.”

Steppe said the donation will help build creative centers in different parts of the county. Right now the group is based in the Moniker Warehouse in downtown San Diego, a location Steppe said is perfect because it's "along the trolley tracks where people can access it and it’s in a gang neutral area. All of those were essential," he said.

Steppe also hopes to partner with more community members and organizations to foster more creative youth development opportunities. He said the donation will also help with that.

"The thing that I love about creative youth development organizations and this work in particular is that when a young person comes in, they’re part of this community continuously," Steppe said. "We don’t just see them through to an end, to a year, a semester, but they know that this is a place that becomes home for them.”

For both Riley and Childress, David's Harp succeeded in that mission.

“The Foundation, it’s like a home away from home. Now that I work here, I get to be with good people that care and just the whole nine,” Riley said.

“This is my home, walking through these doors, seeing everyone here," Childress said. "We’re all one big family and it doesn’t matter if we just met you that day, we still treat you as such.”

And for at-risk youth who might have the same doubts he once had himself, Childress advised, "Take the leap of faith. Right, I feel like if you place your trust, place your faith inside of this organization, inside of our family, we’re able to welcome you with loving arms.”

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