By Darlene Donloe
Jill Gurr’s career as a screenwriter and script supervisor in Hollywood was in forward motion when she decided to leave it behind for something more fulfilling.
She would eventually start the nonprofit Create Now, which provides creative arts mentoring, resources and opportunities to thousands of troubled children and youth in Southern California who have been abused, orphaned, left homeless, or are foster kids, teen parents, gang members or incarcerated.
The organization’s mission is to empower at-risk and high-risk youth and young adults from ages 3 to 24 (transition-age youth) through a variety of arts programs in multiple disciplines that help them to heal and thrive. They also help assist youth out of poverty and into jobs and careers.
Gurr’s life-changing decision began at 2:30 in the morning some 25 years ago while shooting the 1995 film, “Mi Familia (My Family).” She noticed two little brothers hanging out on the set with no supervision. One was 8, the other 11.
“I asked where their parents were,” said Gurr, who has worked on movies with Gregory Peck, Julia Roberts, and Sean Connery.
Without hesitation, the 8-year-old replied, “I don’t know where my mother is and my father, he don’t give a f—.”
While working on the 1993 film “Menace II Society,” where she said she was one of just a few white people on the set, she said she was “awakened” after watching some of the scenes in the movie.
“I would say something like, ‘Hey, does this kind of stuff really happen,’ and they would reply, ‘Hell yeah,’” said Gurr, who grew up in a “wonderful” suburban neighborhood in Long Island, New York. “That’s when I realized that just a few miles away there was this whole other world.”
Two years later, after 25 years in the entertainment industry, Gurr became frustrated and realized her job was not “her highest calling.”
“Over a period of time, I became burned out,” she said. “It didn’t seem important anymore whether an actress’ button on her shirt should be open or closed. I realized I needed to make a bigger difference in the world. I felt compelled to pay it forward.”
Enter Create Now, launched with a mere $5,000 donation, for a segment of the community Gurr calls, “the forgotten kids.”
“I call them forgotten because the kids are tucked away in shelters, foster group homes, jails and mental health clinics,” Gurr said. “They are under the radar of the public eye. That’s when I knew I had to do something. I knew that not too many white people were willing to go into the hood and deal with these kids. I personally don’t have children. These are my children.”
Gurr, who wears her passion on her sleeve, enjoys relaying success stories.
There is Tasha, who Gurr calls her “pride and joy.” Between the ages of 12 and 14, Tasha, who grew up in the Crenshaw District, was in nine facilities or detention centers. She took writing workshops with Create Now and eventually graduated from USC Film School, worked at Warner Bros, published three books, performed stand-up comedy around the country and got her real estate license.
“How many other Tashas are out there?” Gurr asked. “The arts are impactful. Many of the kids who are incarcerated are very bright. Kids just want to be heard and want people to care. It’s amazing what can happen when people care.”
While launching Create Now, Gurr discovered some disturbing facts about the youth in Los Angeles who end up in the foster system.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I found out California has the highest child poverty rate in America with more than 1.6 million children affected and that L.A. has one of the largest gang communities and that more than 30,000 youth in Los Angeles become a part of the foster system every month.”
Gurr said statistics show that half of all youth who age out of foster care end up homeless or incarcerated and that the city’s at-risk and abused children are lacking basic comforts and safety.
“They’re in need of joy and an outlet for self-expression,” she said.
Gurr, who works with at-risk and high-risk kids, said the largest cluster was found in Los Angeles County where 27.8% of children are considered impoverished, and 17,000 experience homelessness.
At-risk, Gurr said, are kids in Los Angeles who come from poverty and the majority “do not” have white skin. High-risk, she said, pertains to all races that have a high risk of having problems.
“I work with them whether they are at-risk or high-risk,” Gurr said. “Many people don’t know and don’t care about them, but I do.”
Gurr says Create Now “Stands for the fact that creativity is crucial for the world. Otherwise, our lives would be bleak and colorless. All we have is now.”
The organization operates in four ways: “volunteer-driven” programs that match musicians, dancers, actors, writers, filmmakers and other creative people with the neediest youth who live close to the volunteers’ own neighborhoods; “school-based classes” at Title 1, charter and continuation schools where students receive zero or limited arts education; “cultural journeys” where youth attend plays and concerts, museums and more; and “community events” including mural projects and arts festivals that take place in disadvantaged neighborhoods, parks, recreation centers, and other public events.
Since its launch, Create Now, which works with a network of 100 partner agencies, has reached about 49,000 kids and about 1,000 annually through the classes.
Gurr and her staff of two “make it happen” year after year with a limited amount of volunteers and a limited annual operating budget of $300,000.
About 90 cents of every dollar donated to Create Now helps the organization buy art supplies, musical instruments, tickets to plays and concerts, and souvenirs given to the students who receive a gift bag to remind them about their accomplishments.
“Yes, like other nonprofits, we really need more money,” said Gurr, who is slowly transitioning back into writing screenplays. “We need operating funds. There is so much more that could and should get done. We could also use more volunteers to help run our programs.”
Create Now has eight programs including Community Art Projects, designed to cap violence in underserved communities.
Culinary Arts teaches students about nutrition, buying produce, cooking techniques, chopping skills, soups, sauces and presentation.
The Digital Media program teaches students photography and enables them to explore their world through the lens of a camera.
In the Fashion program, students are given a variety of pre-owned clothing, new fabrics and fabulous decorations to design wild outfits based on a theme or whatever style they want.
In Visual Arts, kids create collages, draw, paint, and make 3D sculptures.
The Performance program focuses on acting, comedy, dance, theater/improvisation, singing and magic.
In the Music program, students learn the guitar and keyboards. Youth also get to record their songs at the organization’s studio.
Cultural Journeys takes at-risk and high-risk youth to Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, Cirque du Soleil, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Grammy Museum, and more. For most of the students, it’s their first time attending a live performance.
“Those experiences can be profound,” said Gurr, whose dream is to open an art center in South Los Angeles next year. “It opens them up to the culture and possible job opportunities. The arts create our brain neurons, accelerate test results, reduce anxiety, and increases self-esteem.”
The various programs are chosen based on what the kids want.
“Create Now is my child,” Gurr said. “It’s about what the kids want and what their needs are. Create Now is a village coming together.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.