By Kara Witherow, Editor
For 10 years Kim Jenkins had prayed that Open Door Community House would begin a music program. In the fall of 2016, that decade-long prayer was answered, but not exactly how Jenkins expected.
Jenkins had long prayed for, and expected, that Open Door would have a gospel music program for the children who attend Mathews Promise Academy, the ministry’s after school and all day summer program. After all, the children love music and movement, so it seemed a likely fit.
God answered her prayer not with a choir, but with the gift of 67 saxophones, flutes, clarinets, violins, violas, cellos, and other instruments. A donation from local Columbus music store Everything Musical, the instruments were well-used-but-playable rentals that had been returned and were going to be scrapped.
And when music teacher and friend Tracy Leopard offered to teach the students to play, the Youth in Unison children’s orchestra was born. The program provides music instrument training three days per week.
“This is beyond what we ever could have imagined,” said Jenkins, Open Door’s executive director.
Begun January 2017, the Youth in Unison children’s orchestra’s purpose is twofold: to teach children music and to help them academically.
Studies show that musical training - learning an instrument, not just listening to music - has a positive effect on brain development and even accelerates it in young children.
“We’re learning about how learning to play a musical instrument really helps you academically,” Jenkins said. “Your ability to read is improved, your ability to process math, think creatively, and plan for the future is improved. Everything literally alters when you’re learning - not just listening - to play music. It really does change how your brain functions.”
Diamond Hayes, 12, is a budding saxophonist in the Youth in Unison orchestra. The sixth grader began learning to play a musical instrument when former Brookstone High School senior Koyal Ansingkar taught violin to students in the Mathews Promise Academy program in the fall of 2016.
Hayes, who switched to learning the saxophone “because she likes instruments with keys,” has played the woodwind instrument for a year and says that learning and playing makes her feel good.
“I practice a lot,” she said. “I bring my instrument home and practice to get the music right. It was hard to learn how to read music for the first time, but I feel good playing the saxophone.”
Not only has she blossomed personally, Hayes has grown academically, too, and her mother and the Open Door leaders attribute it in large part to the music program.
Hayes’ school teacher saw such an improvement in her reading that she sent a note home praising Hayes and informing her mother that Diamond had moved up an entire reading level in just five months.
“She has shown me that her attitude, behavior, and confidence have gotten better and grown,” said Hayes’ mother Tasha Hayes.
The benefits of learning to play a musical instrument are endless, says Leopard, who used to teach middle- and high-school band.
“It teaches so many things,” she said. “It teaches discipline, teamwork, it gives confidence. You learn to think outside the box, you learn to think for yourself but also as part of a team, and you learn critical thinking skills. And there’s the joy of music - when nothing else can say the right words, music can.”
The “Youth in Unison” music instruction program provides music instrument training three days a week for 32 kindergarten through high school students.
Many families served by Open Door Community House don’t have access to music programs, Jenkins said, or can’t afford to pay for private music lessons or to rent instruments.
“We believe having this access to a music program will help build their confidence, enhance their academics, and give them a way out of poverty as they grow into adulthood,” she said.
The long-term hope for the program is to give the students hope, a vision for their future beyond their current reality, and break the cycle of poverty. Leaders would love to see students receive college scholarships for their musical abilities.
“We really hope in our programs that we can give the children and youth tools and access to resources so that when they’re adults they won’t be living in poverty,” Jenkins said. “So we encourage them to dream beyond what they currently know, and we believe this (Youth in Unison music instruction program) is one more resource and one additional tool to see beyond all that they currently know.”
Open Door Community House, Inc. is a National Mission Institution of the Women’s Division and the South Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. For more information, visit www.odch.org.