Be the Change: Dawn Hess – Building Character Through Performing Arts


Dawn Hess is founder and director of Kids Unlimited Institute of the Arts (KU) in Redding, as well as part-time music teacher and director of the Festival Choir at Redding School of the Arts. She uses music and dance as tools for building character and creating outstanding performances.

Dawn opened KU’s performing arts program in 1988, motivated by the limited cultural environment of the time: performing arts opportunities for youth were limited to two dance studios in town, and programs of the area’s junior high and two high schools. “Students traveled far to participate in performing arts,” says Dawn. “Many went to Reno and Sacramento to take part in summer dance and music.” She wanted young people from Redding and surrounding communities to have similar opportunities that children in metropolitan areas had.

As a professional musician and singer, Dawn’s desire was to increase the performance skills of children ages 7-18, and also instill positive life lessons promoting confidence, courage and commitment. She has accomplished this through KU’s year-round programs in singing and dancing. “The students learn much about discipline, hard work and problem solving,” she notes.

Although Dawn loves the process of working with young people to produce magical performances, her passion lies in building character. She believes a misconception people have about singing and dancing is that these art forms are all about performance, when more importantly “they are tools for teaching leadership, self-worth and responsibility.” 

Photos by Tracey Hedge, Firefly Mobile Studios,

Photos by Tracey Hedge, Firefly Mobile Studios,

Dawn developed student leadership and intern programs to help prepare students for the everyday tasks of life. She often works with parents to help them understand that the scope of KU’s program includes leadership training and character building as well as music and dance. 

KU Dance Director Tiffany Rodrigues says, “Dawn is very diplomatic and caring. She has taught me so much about the importance of how I communicate with children and adults.”

In her 27 years of directing KU, Dawn has produced an original summer production each year, with casts of up to 250 students. The shows are produced from start to finish in six weeks! Dawn strives to know each child she works with and could not do that with 250 youth, so in recent years she’s pared down enrollment to 150.

Her after-school program produces spring and winter shows on a smaller scale. “These are the productions where many children get their start,” she shares. 

Dawn believes that children need to learn the realities of life in a kind and loving way without being coddled. She wants them to enjoy the process of being part of a group that works toward excellence. 

“Every young person who is in KU has a part in the production,” she says. “They don’t audition. What they need to learn, though, is that they won’t always get the roles they want. We talk about how to manage disappointment and discuss that the role they have doesn’t define who they are or how important they are.”

When she was 3 years old, Dawn was in her first public performance – it started her on a lifetime of singing. In college, she travelled to perform. “I was terrified as a singer,” she recalls. “I always thought I might be letting people down if I didn’t do well.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized it was okay to fail, that there is much more to life than what happens in a moment.

Raised in Laguna Beach, California, Dawn went to Biola University on a full vocal scholarship. She moved to Redding from Lancaster in 1985, and now she has three adult children, and three grandchildren with a fourth on the way. Music and her faith are the cornerstones of her life. “My life is all about my relationship with God,” she reveals. “The security I have there enables me to do what I do and to speak to kids, parents and friends about ways to handle life.”

Wendy Tempest is a Kids Unlimited board member. She says, “I admire Dawn’s inner strength as well as her professionalism and character. I am inspired by her talent, vision, creativity and passion for her performing arts programs.” 

The North State is fortunate that Dawn’s enthusiasm for children and the arts is making a positive difference in many lives.

To contact Dawn Hess call (530) 949-1121.

[sws_blue_box box_size=”580″]KU’s summer production “Animation Nation” will be held at Redding’s Civic Auditorium July 24-26. For information visit the KU website at [/sws_blue_box]

Carolyn Warnemuende
About Carolyn Warnemuende

Author Carolyn Warnemuende has two daughters and five grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Redding. She writes parenting and educational articles, sponsors a school in Uganda, and visits Africa twice a year. She receives great joy in taking daily care of her four-year-old granddaughter who was adopted from Ethiopia.

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