In December 2014, I was working in the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and it was time to generate lots of interest for the federal government’s Combined Federal Campaign, which supports local and national charities. I looked through the list and thought it would be interesting to invite a local non-profit called Guitars Not Guns, which taught at-risk youth how to play the guitar in the hopes that a musical outlet would keep the kids away from violence.
I subsequently joined the non-profit and was placed in January 2015 at the Sitar Arts Center, teaching group guitar classes to middle and high school students. As the semester went on, I fell in love with the students, the center staff, and the center in general. It was a place of hope and inspiration for a lot of kids who didn’t have much at home or in school. It was a place where children–from infants to high school seniors–could go for solace, support, and a variety of arts education.
The students could learn to play almost any instrument, and develop skills in video game coding, painting, photography, film making, stage acting, dance, and more. After my first semester I returned to teach more, and then became involved in helping to build the stage set for the summer musical. Then I found myself on the gala committee, and most recently, had discussions with the executive director about joining the leadership council or board of directors. I’ve become more involved because my love for the center and its students continues to deepen each day.
When my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world last year, one thing was clear: I would continue volunteering my time at the Sitar Arts Center. I could cut back on other things, but my music classes would remain. The student were too important.
During the past five years, I have come to love my students, and something tells me that they love me back. I’ll never forget last year’s spring gala. One of my students was selected to receive a $10,000 scholarship to attend a music internship and they were going to surprise him with the award at the gala in front of hundreds of Sitar’s supporters.
And when the moment came, there he was, by himself, on stage, playing his bass guitar (that the center donated to him) like he was possessed. All I could do was stand in the back of the room and rock back and forth like a nervous third parent. And when he finished, he took a bow, and the award presenter got up on stage and told everyone the news of the award and scholarship. My student received a standing ovation.
His parents were so proud with beaming smiles and tears of joy. When he got off the stage, and while hugging his father, he looked up at me. I just gave him a head nod and a smile. A few moments later he walked up to me and gave me a hug, too.
“Thank you,” he said in my ear.
“That was all you,” I replied. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You helped me.”
“I’ll always help you.”
We both cried in each other’s arms.
He was a student who seemed depressed when I first met him, and now he was full of life and energy. He was happy. His grades improved. He wanted to go to college. And while it would be too simplistic to say it was only the Sitar Arts Center that helped him get there, it certainly was a big part.
And that’s why I’m asking for your help. The coronavirus pandemic has caused Sitar to close until the end of the academic year, which means that all the students who were taking private lessons or group classes no longer have that option.
Many students don’t have their own instruments at home to be able to practice, so their skills atrophy. The group dance, art, and photography classes can’t run. The positive, supportive atmosphere at the center isn’t there without the students.
Today, we need your help. Please. Anything you can do to help us out weather this storm is worth it, whether that is a monetary contribution or a donation of a musical instrument you no longer use that could be in good hands with a Sitar Arts Center student.
Doing what we can to ensure these students are engaged with their arts education will keep them off the streets with a daily focus on something positive in their lives. For students who don’t have much, this is critical to keeping progressing. We are trying to find ways to get students the arts education they need through video chats and other online platforms. We are creating training and practice content and delivering it electronically. But we still need support to create all of this and get it to the students.
Please consider donating whatever you can today via the button below.
If you have musical instruments or anything else you can donate, please contact Naomi Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for even reading this, and it would be even better if would consider sharing this post on your social media pages, so we can continue to spread the word about the support that Sitar and its students need.