Growing up on the East Coast, at times homeless, the future looked pretty bleak to Noah Vasquez. As a teenager, he had dropped out of high school and got involved with gangs.

“Those were hell years. I don’t think I even understood how poor I was,” says Vasquez.

At 15, life began to change. At his brother’s urging, Vasquez went to live at a youth home in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, where he got help from an inner-city ministry. Eventually, he got his GED. He served in the Air Force for six years and three years as a Department of Defense contracting officer. He even found his way to college, and in time, received his MBA.

Helping to guide him along the way, he says, were the arts.

“At the youth home, our church put on street-corner plays, and these pop-up dramas were a way of communicating the outcome of gang violence and how faith was a way to positively express oneself,” said Vasquez. “We would play out for young people their lives. We would show how a gang member would be a gang member by day, but in the evening, at home, he would go back to being a regular kid with a mother and father, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. We would help these young people make the connection that a person being shot by a gang member – that a person they might shoot and kill-- could be their father or brother or grandfather. We did a lot of evangelizing through these plays and they most definitely struck a chord.”

Fast forward to today. Vasquez, now 35, is President and CEO of Competitive Range Solutions LLC, a multi-million dollar company located in St. Louis, which provides technical and non-technical mission support and technology services to defense and other federal government customers. Customers include the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the U.S. Transportation Command, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, among many others.

Vasquez is also the President of the Young Friends Association of the Arts and Education Council. He explains he got involved because the arts are “very near and dear” to his heart.

“As a young person, being involved in those plays was a huge release. It was how I got rid of my negative energy,” he says. “It really got me on a positive track.

“When I saw an opportunity to get involved with the Young Friends of A&E, I felt I could offer my skills as a businessman to help corral young talent and bring the very best of what everyone’s background (as Young Friends) has to offer to the forefront. That way we can generate new ideas and be more innovative in the way we are accomplishing the mission and objectives of A&E as well as kick start some things that not only resonate with our constituents but potentially revitalize what the arts mean to mid-career people who have disposable income and are looking for fun, exciting and cool things to do in St. Louis.”

Vasquez, who is married and has two children, says today the arts bring him great joy and “are a way of decompressing.”

He regularly visits St. Louis area schools to tell his story about growing up homeless and as a gang member, and how he turned his life around. He notes that in some of the young people he speak to, he sees his young self.

“The things that plagued me back then nearly destroyed me,” he says. “Many of those same things are still facing young people today. I believe that many young people are ill-equipped to deal with disappointment. They don’t feel any worth.

“The arts are a way to provide an outlet to allow them to express their creativity, be it through rap, or writing poetry, or performing. It’s a way to help them validate themselves and see they have something meaningful to contribute.”

Vasquez also believes that St. Louis needs young professionals like himself to “step up and drive change and create an environment where we can attract more successful, ambitious young people.”

“The arts are so important to our city because they provide an enriching lifestyle,” he continues. “I certainly think a vibrant, diverse arts scene is one of the reasons people choose to live in St. Louis, or any other city for that matter. A fully formed life isn’t all about work. There have to be other outlets, and the arts are a real joy.

“They helped me at a time when I was hurting and had nothing,” he adds. “Today the arts are some of the most beautiful moments I share with my wife, whether it’s when we hear music or experience a play. It’s an accent to our lives.”