STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

If you build a youth music program, they will come

Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth

Every once and a while, our State of Opportunity team receives a story pitch from someone in the community who's trying to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged youth. This is one of those stories. It’s a piece about boys, girls, and the universal language of music.

Casey Stratton is the music program coordinator at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, and he's the one who originally contacted us about possibly doing a story. He sent us some audio of the kids - everything from strumming their guitars to playing "Ode to Joy" on the keyboard to banging on some drums - and we knew we had a story. Once we heard them sing "Ho Hey" by the Lumineers, we couldn't resist. They were too darn cute.

Credit Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth

The after-school music program began in 2012 with a grant from the Barber Foundation in Grand Rapids. Stratton says, "one of the main things that we were trying to address in our communities is that the public schools in neighborhoods we serve have been forced to cut music programing or eliminate it completely from the curriculum," so, he says, a lot of the students involved in the after-school music program have little no music experience at all.

"Giving the gift of music and the knowledge of music to a child opens up a world of possibilities," explains Stratton. "A lot of the kids that we’re working with are in very challenging life situations, so if I can give them something ... where they feel successful and they can see where their hard work pays off, my hope is that some of those kids would make some choices later in their lives based on what’s happening right now."

Since the program started last fall, more than 225 youth have participated - the vast majority of whom are African American and low-income.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth will perform their first ever free spring concert Thursday, May 16 at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.