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Celestine Hilechi, centre, says she overcame her shyness about singing in public with help from Project Limelight Society. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
Celestine Hilechi, centre, says she overcame her shyness about singing in public with help from Project Limelight Society. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

Project Limelight gets bittersweet publicity after Monteith’s death Add to ...

Like any charitable organization, Project Limelight Society is generally happy to get some publicity. But its moment in the spotlight this past week was unexpected and uncomfortable after the death of its famous supporter, Cory Monteith.

One of Mr. Monteith’s final meals had been at the café that supports Project Limelight, with the society’s co-founder. Suddenly, the whole world was interested in this inner-city Vancouver charity. Or, at least, in what kind of drinks Mr. Monteith consumed at its little restaurant on the Thursday before he died from a lethal mix of alcohol and heroin.

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Mr. Monteith supported the organization because of his history with Maureen Webb, the casting agent who co-founded Project Limelight and who helped Mr. Monteith discover acting.

But beyond personal connections, the Glee star was excited by what was going on at this Downtown Eastside performing arts initiative.

And with good reason.

Project Limelight was founded by Ms. Webb and her sister, Donalda Weaver, with a bit of money their mother left them when she died in 2010. In the school year program and shorter summer boot camp, kids learn about the performing arts and put on a show. There are no auditions. All youth from the neighbourhood are welcome. About 60 have gone through the program, with a 90 per cent return rate.

“We thought we could touch one or two children,” Ms. Weaver says, “but I think we’ve touched every one of them.”

Each rehearsal and performance is accompanied by a healthy meal prepared at the East of Main café – a social enterprise whose profits, if it ever has any, will go toward Project Limelight, which currently operates on an annual budget of about $150,000. Neither Ms. Webb nor Ms. Weaver, both of whom work full time in addition to running the organization, is paid. The program’s teachers, directors and choreographers volunteer their time or receive a nominal honorarium.

The decision by those close to Mr. Monteith to select Project Limelight this week as one of three recommended charities for donations in his memory is a welcome boost to the organization, which needs air conditioning in its workshop space – something Mr. Monteith vowed to help with during that meal downstairs at East of Main.

When dreaming up the project, the sisters received early buy-in from Mr. Monteith, who loved the concept and introduced it to Richard Branson. Both men were in Vancouver in May, 2012, for the organization’s launch. Sir Richard brought his chequebook.

I met a 12-year-old-girl named Celestine Hilechi that day. Born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, she explained she liked to sing, but was very shy about it until she connected with Project Limelight.

I saw Celestine again this week, at a schoolyard rehearsal for Project Limelight’s Vaudeville-style cabaret planned for the Chinatown Night Market. Now 13, she belted out a rendition of Jessie J’s Price Tag that stopped everyone in their tracks, her star quality evident from the first note. She has the voice, she has the moves, and now she has the confidence.

“I’ve been doing more theatre. I’m not as shy any more,” she said. (If she was not at the summer boot camp, she explained, she would probably be at home doing chores or watching TV.)

She also has an agent, and recently landed her first professional role. I’m guessing it won’t be her last. She’s already talking about giving back to the program in some way – returning as a mentor or, if she makes it big, donating some money.

This is not the point of the program. Ms. Webb is not in this to discover young stars or groom kids for a life in show business. She wants to enrich their lives.

“I think what we’re building here is a community, and these kids can lean on each other, can lean on the program, can have a sense of belonging,” she said. “There is a camaraderie with performing arts that doesn’t happen anywhere else but maybe sports, but sports is competitive.”

A few minutes later, she added: “This is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

On a sweaty summer afternoon, there was a real team atmosphere as the kids gave it their all at rehearsal. Kyla Matthews-Marsh performed a knock-your-tap-shoes-off routine to Tea for Two. Amina Elkatib was a fine narrator, reciting her complicated lines perfectly. Delila Gama, 13, was a funny, tragic Juliet in a condensed version of the Shakespearean tragedy.

“I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing if I hadn’t gotten these opportunities,” Delila told me earlier. “I feel like I’ve probably discovered what I can do.”

It was impossible, in the circumstances, to watch this rag-tag group of talented kids and not think of Glee.

When news of Mr. Monteith’s death broke a week ago, Ms. Webb heard from a couple of the older girls, who were devastated. On Monday morning, she talked to the group about it. They decided to sing a song in his memory. They chose Sir Duke, the final number in their cabaret.

I watched these kids nail it toward the end of their inner-city schoolyard rehearsal, and I was struck by the lyrics.

“Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand,” they sang. “With an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance and clap their hands.”

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