These kids today. They’re actually quite brilliant.

So many youths (teens, pre-teens, and even younger kids) are social media savvy, with the ability and desire to create mini-films and videos presenting a little bit of everything — dancing, singing, rap, drama, visual art, fashion, hair and makeup, poetry and creative writing, even tarot and astrology.

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Joseph A. Halsey is the founder of the James R. Halsey Foundation of the Arts, which will host a red-carpet gala to commemorate its fifth anniversary on Thursday, March 9 at the Trenton Country Club.

They’re ready to launch themselves into a media career — almost. First, they need more encouragement and education, polish and presentation, and maybe most of all, access to professional equipment.

For five years, the Trenton-based James R. Halsey Foundation of the Arts has assisted in just this kind of mentoring.

The JRHF, in partnership with the community, aims to “enrich the quality of life for Mercer County’s youths by providing a safe and educational environment where participants are inspired and encouraged toward a better future,” according to its website.

Founded in 2018 by producer/director/actor/musician Joseph A. Halsey, a Trenton native, this plan is accomplished by stoking an interest in the creative process, particularly while guiding participants in filmmaking, and that means all aspects of the art form. The organization also hopes to provide life-skills training that promotes success in business as well as arts.

The non-profit 501 (c)3 JRHF — named after Halsey’s late father — will accept any youth in Mercer County ages 10 through 18, and there are no auditions, entrance exams, or waiting lists. The programs are free to participants.

Classes include the Let’s Film and Let’s Film Jr. programs, where youths learn how to create short films, from pre- to post-production.

The Generation Change program involves interviews with adjudicated and at-risk inner city youth, focusing on how they would solve current problems in their community, such as building positive relationships with law enforcement and local government.

In addition, the young people at the JRHF can create short feature films and have recently completed “Vanessa,” written and acted entirely by the students, and directed by Olivia Ames and Noelle Correa. “Vanessa” is a story of how bullying can easily escalate into a situation of gun violence.

Halsey (the chief operating officer) is assisted by a host of volunteers and a small staff including Kim Cody, chief operating officer, and producer/technical director Stephen Tilghman.

To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the JRHF will throw its first ever annual event, a red-carpet gala on Thursday, March 9, at the Trenton Country Club, which will include stand-up comedy, as well as an appearance by the Nottingham High School Step Team, and music from the LOTUS Project choir.

In addition, there will be fun performances by local and regional “celebs” doing bits from iconic movies, such as the climactic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” where Jack Nicholson growls, “You can’t handle the truth!”

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The James R. Halsey Foundation offers young people an entrée into a media career with its 'Let's Film' program.

The idea to launch the organization came to Halsey after his documentary “If I was Mayor” was filmed in Trenton.

The young people involved “wanted to be part of media,” says Halsey, speaking from his home in Hamilton. “They already do all kinds of things on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, etc. So, the thinking was, ‘let’s teach them a more professional way to do this,’ which we do through the Let’s Film classes.”

One big advantage is that, through the class, they’ll be able to use state-of-the-art professional-level equipment, which most people, even adults, don’t have access to, since it’s quite an investment.

Halsey admits that the Let’s Film classes are intense, and professional documentary craft is a painstaking process, but the young people are enthusiastic, determined, and focused. They’ve helped create hard-hitting works about life in Trenton, especially about how people their age are affected by violence.

Halsey’s own production company, seven13 Films, produces and directs the works, but the student participants in the JRHF’s Let’s Film program are hands-on through the complex procedure, even earning a production credit on their resume.

“Here’s where it goes full circle,” Halsey says. “The students work as production assistants, they work on all aspects, and they get their first credits, including an IMDB credit. It’s their first professional set, and they’re working with pros we bring in all the time.”

“I’ve Been Shot” is a short film that goes deep into the lives of five young adults who have experienced gun violence first hand. They speak from their perspective on fears of living daily in urban neighborhoods, coping with trauma and murder, and losing friends and family to violence.

The one young man and four young women who have survived that harrowing experience were fearless enough to go on camera and be interviewed, perhaps in hopes that viewers might better understand what it is like to live amid a culture of such chaos.

“Some of the young women were just hanging out with people they’ve known since childhood, and now those people are targets,” Halsey says. “So they’re caught in the crossfire: They wound up getting shot and watching someone they grew up with die. One of the girls was shot when she was only seven years old.”

The JRHF’s 2021 documentary “Common Ground” brought police and juvenile offenders together to sit down in conversation.

“It was intense, but it wasn’t as controversial as you would think,” Halsey says. “The two groups of people were really listening to each other. So many people don’t know what the cops’ roles are, why they do things the way they do, and (absorbing those issues) was very helpful.”

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The JRHF's 2021 documentary 'Common Ground' brought police and juvenile offenders together to sit down in conversation.

On the other hand, the police discovered why young people might push back at them.

“It was fascinating to see how both sides learned about each other,” Halsey says.

One part of the Generation Change documentary asked its young subjects “what would you do if you were mayor?” Halsey says they all had the same answer: create more places for youths to go after school, because there are certainly not enough.

“That became one of the Halsey Foundation’s main (emphases),” he says.

He goes on to wonder if some of these youths might someday go into politics, and make better policy than past and current generations.

“We can’t create legislation without empathy and sympathy,” Halsey says. “I don’t think we can legislate things for youths living in a situation like this — it’s a war zone. You have to know what it’s like, otherwise you can’t create policy. Without really talking to (the young people), we always think we know what’s better for them. They should have a seat at the table.”

Halsey gives a big shout out to all the staff at the JRH Foundation, especially to Kim Cody, “who is ‘mom’ to all these young people. We’re partners, and she’s been in this every step of the way,” he says. “I named the foundation after my dad, but it’s really a joint venture.”

“There are also a ton of folks who come in and teach, a lot of Rider alums for example, including one who comes in to volunteer as a writing instructor,” Halsey says. “Steve (Tilghman) is in charge of teaching the technical aspects. I work closely with the actors. There’s always a hands-on approach, and it’s a lot of effort, but everything that happens is because of the group. The rest of the credit goes to the young people.”

Halsey and his family helped out in his uncle’s bar in Chambersburg, but then circumstances took him and his father to Melbourne, Florida. Young Joe was playing in a rock band there, just being a teen in general, and got knocked off the track a little. He credits his involvement in theater with giving him more focus.

“I wasn’t paying attention, just goofing off, so my dad and my English/drama teacher Linda Rapp got together and said, ‘Let’s see if Joe wants to get up there and perform,’” he says. “I kind of had a natural ability, whether I was doing music or theater or film, and I got excited about performing, from my very first role.”

“It got me to a point where I wanted to go to college (to study theater),” he says. “All of sudden, my path started going in a proper way, and I said, ‘let’s do this.’”

His first role was the lead in “Bye Bye Birdie,” playing the Elvis-esque Conrad Birdie.

From high school, Halsey went to the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka, then moved back to Trenton, commuting to New York for more specialized training at the Acting Studio and Breakthrough Studios.

While anticipating his big break, Halsey was playing music, performing off-Broadway, tending bar, and was also waiting tables in New York City. One night he waited on the casting director for NBC’s “Cosby” show, who felt Halsey would be perfect in a role as the family’s pizza delivery guy.

“That was exciting, especially since there wasn’t much of a TV presence in New York at the time, everything was made out in Los Angeles,” he says. “Not even ‘Law and Order’ was being made there yet.”

Indeed, Halsey got onboard with “Law and Order,” then its offshoot “Special Victims Unit,” playing a cop in both shows. He also acted in several daytime dramas and on “America’s Most Wanted,” but he left television for various independent film roles. Indie titles included “Junkie Heaven,” “Stand Up Guy,” “Leaving,” and the feature film “Stuff.”

“I pursued the indie film route, and then got into directing and I’ve never looked back,” he says.

The participants in the JRHF programs have run the gamut from college-bound youths to young men serving time in juvenile detention centers. Halsey feels all the students deserve the same amount of kindness, attention, and education, and in fact, “we should all be kind, especially after what we’ve been through these last few years,” he says. “Watching the news cycle, it’s horrifying. We really do need to be a little kinder.”

“That’s why I hang out with the students, they’re not as mean as adults, they’re less jaded, less judgmental, and their creativity is less inhibited,” Halsey says. “Their enthusiasm is what keeps us going.”

The James R. Halsey Foundation of the Arts, 535 East Franklin Street, Trenton, 609-938-3673. The JRHF’s Red Carpet Gala is Thursday, March 9, 6 to 9 p.m. at the Trenton Country Club, 201 Sullivan Way, West Trenton. VIP tickets cost $100.

For more information on Joseph A. Halsey, go to

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