“I’ve always been a singer,” says Jaela Cheeks-Lomax, relaxed in a sunny armchair in an office of Christ Church Bronxville. A native of Mount Vernon, Jaela grew up listening to jazz. Her early musicality attracted the attention of a family friend with connections in the music industry, who helped her start performing professionally at the age of seven. Despite a profound childhood shyness, she felt instinctively drawn towards a musical career: “That’s kind of been the goal since I was a kid. To get to Broadway and just be a singer.”
Now, at age 24, she’s closer than ever to achieving that dream. A program called Young at Arts, founded by Christ Church Bronxville and funded by Episcopal Charities, changed her life profoundly when she was eleven years old. Young at Arts is a performing arts educational organization which offers classes in voice, dance, and drama to children in grades three through twelve. With the resources and loving community she found there, Jaela has grown into the professional artist she is today—and tonight at Episcopal Charities’ annual Tribute Dinner, she will address attendees to tell them how their support helps transform young lives.
Jaela’s parents encouraged her young musical ambitions, but she struggled to find similar support at school. Her elementary school lacked a substantial arts program. Furthermore, the social environment of school was sometimes hostile; Jaela’s shyness and sensitivity led to bullying by classmates that repeated interventions failed to resolve. The child of activist parents, Jaela says that “even as a ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-old I had insight that there were bigger things going on in the world, and I wanted to be a part of making change.” However, in the often harsh social environment of elementary school, “having that kind of insight wasn’t the most popular thing.”
For an alienated but artistic child, Young at Arts was a godsend. Jaela vividly remembers the morning in sixth grade when she heard an announcement about auditions over her school’s loudspeaker. After her initial audition, she got her first-ever callback: “I didn’t even know what a callback was!” After her second audition, which took place in the Christ Church sanctuary, she was cast as the lead in an upcoming Young at Arts show. It was the beginning of a creative relationship which has transformed Jaela’s life, and which continues to this day.
The nurturing environment of Young at Arts was a relief after Jaela’s struggles in school. “Everyone there was so welcoming,” she says of her first days with the program. “Being with a group of kids who were passionate about music, it all made sense.” Since she was one of the youngest cast members, older students looked out for her and would even walk her to rehearsal. Throughout her teenage years, she thrived in the program. She credits it now with much of her personal development, saying that “being around people with all different backgrounds really made me appreciate the world we live in.” Additionally, her time as a student there “solidified the relationship between art and activism” for her, helping her to understand music as a way of “speaking out for things when other people are silent.” Her Broadway dreams only grew stronger, and she began pursuing musical theater as a career path.
But if there was one thing about Young at Arts that influenced Jaela most profoundly, it was founder Sharyn Pirtle. “She’s created something that is so marvelous,” Jaela says of Ms. Pirtle, whom she considers a mentor. “But I don’t think she even really knows how much she’s impacted everyone’s life by saying, ‘I want to start a nonprofit’… She’s really genuine and she really cares.” Growing up, “my dream was always to work alongside her.”
That dream has recently come to fruition. During her junior year at Sarah Lawrence College, Jaela returned to Young at Arts as an instructor. Initially intimidated by teaching, she has gained confidence in the past two years and now loves helping students develop shows in rehearsal and on stage. “I genuinely love doing what I do,” she says of her work as a teacher. “We’re helping them to navigate this world. Even if they don’t decide to do this professionally, they’re gaining skills that will last with them for a lifetime.”
Jaela’s career continues to flourish outside of Young at Arts as well. Earlier this year, she was signed as a voiceover actor, and recently did some voiceover work for MTV; she also appeared in Ghost: The Musical at the White Plains Performing Arts Center this fall. Plus, she says, “I’ve claimed 2018 as the year of my Broadway debut.” But no matter where her career takes her, she plans to continue working with Young at Arts. “My relationship with Young at Arts is just a full-circle love story,” she says. “What an amazing thing, that this program could have such a profound impact on my life. And now I get to give back, which I think is the most important thing.”