For Melissa Cirilo, the Young Actors Workshop provided more than fond childhood memories. It was fundamental for her personal development. She started as a Hatch Elementary School student and continued to learn more about her own creativity through the program.

With a decade of experiences, Cirilo still laughs when she sees her picture in the archives. Cirilo joined YAW’s board of directors in 2018 and last October became the program’s executive director. She is leading the charge to see the program thrive in the years to come.

Using improvisational techniques, the student-driven program has been a Coastside resource for 30 years. The nonprofit is currently expanding to Oakland, and Cirilo said the workshops on the Coastside need a funding boost to be sustainable and able to hire high-quality staff. Last week, YAW opened a GoFundMe campaign toward a $50,000 goal of creating a viable future for the program. 

Until last year, YAW participants were perhaps best known around the coast for dressing in pirate garb and providing a spooky haunted house experience in the Johnston Barn during the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. Last year was the first time in a long time the nonprofit did not host the haunted house. As a result, it lost a major fundraising source. 

“I believe in the value of Young Actors Workshop where we empower students to be the main driving force of their creative outlet,” Cirilo said. “And we really want to empower students to tell their own stories. Whether they are wacky, zany, weird or serious and dramatic, we want to give kids the opportunity to be heard and seen.”

The Coastside’s 15-session workshop for elementary school students is held at Hatch every Tuesday evening from January through April. It has also started a new animation class that will have a showcase in May. Between the fall and spring term classes, the kids perform a handful of original shows each year, each one driven by their own initiative and creative talents. 

Cirilo began performing with YAW under the tutelage of the late founder Auri Naggar. The student-driven productions blend all sorts of comedy and drama into an original show. Aside from harboring a safe, creative outlet, Cirilo spoke of YAW’s ability to further cognitive development in young minds outside a traditional classroom environment. 

“During my time, I was really gifted with a lot of opportunities, specifically being provided the base for creativity,” Cirilo recalled. “We practice guided improvisation to provide structure to empower kids to get out of their own bodies and concepts of self and have the opportunity to become a story narrator of their own.”

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