CHICAGO — On a chilly historic night in Grant Park, Alejandra Campoverdi witnessed history, standing up against the stage as her employer for the past few months — newly elected President Barack Obama — took the stage to address an electrifying audience.
“Being there in Grant Park that night was amazing because obviously we had all worked really hard and spent all this time working for something we really believed in and to experience that moment … and watching the crowd getting more excited when we realized it had gone our way is one I will never forget,” she said. “Everyone was crying and screaming and the streets were filled with people.
“It was basically a whole night of celebration for everyone.”
Nearly a year after the election, Campoverdi is still working for the same boss, this time in the White House where the Santa Monica native is the assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy.
It’s been a long journey to the nation’s capital for Campoverdi, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Ocean Park, attended St. Monica Catholic High School and later graduated from USC with a degree in communications in 2001 and a masters from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government eight years later, volunteering in between with an organization that advocates for the rights of migrant farm workers.
But it’s the Virginia Avenue Project that Campoverdi credits with helping her get to where is today.
She will return home tonight to be honored with the Community Hero Award during Virginia Avenue Project’s 17th annual birthday gala at Casa del Mar, an event that will raise money for the nonprofit organization that has served more than 600 children in the community.
It was founded by actor and writer Leigh Curran, who moved to the West Coast after working with the 52nd Street Project in New York City, which is similarly a free afterschool performing arts and mentoring program for children.
She named the program the Virginia Avenue Project because sessions were held at the old Police Activities League center at Virginia Avenue Park before it moved to its current location at Memorial Park.
The core goal of the program was similar to the 52nd Street Project — mentor children between the ages of 6-18 and allow them to reach their full potential through the performing arts, helping them become successful in other areas of their life, including school.
Since its inception, all students who have gone through the Virginia Avenue Project have graduated from high school with 95 percent of them going on to college. Approximately 98 percent of the college-bound students were the first in their family to go.
“The reason the statistic is so high is we are in their lives literally the whole time they’re growing up and going to school,” Curran said. “We are like a second family, a second support system.”
The program started with acting and writing lessons and has since expanded to offer courses in video, photography and poetry.
Campoverdi was just 13 when she enrolled in the Virginia Avenue Project as part of the organization’s first class of students, staying until she graduated from high school and returning to volunteer after finishing USC.
Her mother felt that a program focused on the arts would help the shy Campoverdi blossom, which it did.
“It was not so much because the project was about trying to make kids into performers as encouraging us to find out own voice and really feel confident about expressing that in an authentic way,” Campoverdi said.
She wrote three plays during her time with the program, all of which were produced. Her first play told an abstract story about a woman who was grappling with her own feelings about “nothingness.” The story was inspired by events that were then going on at home.
The play was performed on stage at UCLA.
“You can imagine when you’re a kid and you go on stage and you’re sitting there and you’re watching an audience react to your words,” she said. “It’s such an amazing experience for a kid.”
The Community Hero Award is given each year to a person who has had an impact on the community, regardless of whether it’s arts related.
Campoverdi was selected because she came from little and found her way to success, dedicating her life to nonprofit work and public service, Curran said.
“It’s an extraordinary journey and I think she inspired all of us to become the best we can,” Curran said. “She’s one of our kids who is an extraordinary role model for other kids involved in the project.”