After studying and working in Europe, acclaimed actress Shella Scott-Wilkinson settled in Los Angeles and turned her professional interests to the community. She served as a Program Coordinator for Artsreach from 1987-1998 where she taught, designed, developed, and implemented arts programming for Arts-Im-Correction and for incarcerated youth at Nelles School for Boys.

She received a 3-year grant from the California Arts Council to teach theatre to inner-city youth, an experience that solidified her desire to work with youth after seeing what a positive impact the arts had on the youth. She saw firsthand the self-confidence they gained, how excited they were about learning, and how they were inspirited to set future goals. So in 1987, she formed the Theatre Of Hearts Board of Directors aimed at using the arts to make difference globally.

However, Shella began to notice that there were virtually nonexistent quality resources and arts programs in the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. In 1992, following the civil unrest in Los Angeles, Theatre Of Hearts became focused on strenghtening the local community in LA by working with underserved neighborhoods that lacked any artistic and cultural resources. The Theatre Of Hearts Youth First (TOHYF) Artist-In-Residence Program was estabilished to prevent and intervene in youth violence, increase investment in youth and their wellbeing, and provide youth with ongoing mentorship critical for making a lasting impact in their lives. After witnessing the degree to which youth were disregarded in the wake of violence, TOHYF provided youth from these neighborhoods with an outlet for their voices to be heard and to empower them through direct contact with quality arts as healing, liberating, and skill-building experience.

The first iteration of TOHYF arts education programming took place over the summer at 35 sites throughout LA County over a period of 2 years. The successful pilot program culminated with a youth art exhibit at the House of Blues, where over 300 students, their families, and community members came together to recognize the Youth First Artist-In-Residence Program’s effectiveness in providing arts education programming and to celebrate the positive change experienced by students of the program. Shella wanted to transform the way the kids were neglected by using the arts to heal youth and help them overcome the violence in their neighborhoods, and create a dialogue about the significance that the arts can have on their lives.