Organizations: Guitars Not Guns

This Organization relies on that “aha!” moment the first time a kid strums the strings. Then when fans applaud and swoon, the sounds of a guitar can drown out the other noise – taunts at school, gang violence, smooth-talking drug dealers.

Treble, Not Trouble: “When I was young, my guitar was my best friend,” says Ray Nelson, an Atlanta resident who founded Guitars Not Guns, the international, nonprofit music education program for at-risk youths with the motto: “Let’s fill the world with music rather than the sounds of mothers weeping.”

As foster parents in the 1990s, he and his wife, Louise, hit upon the organization’s simple premise.

“Most foster kids move four or five times in high school,” he says. “I noticed that the one thing they had in common was that they carried around a plastic bag with their clothes in it – that was all they had. A guitar is portable, and I knew so many musicians whose guitars were just sitting in attics, gathering dust,” he says.

Group Harmony: The children needed lessons, too, and not finding any textbooks tailored to their program’s unusual needs, the Nelsons developed their own curriculum for two levels of eight-week courses, rallied volunteer teachers and started packing the Boys & Girls Clubs and other community venues in 2000.

“Underprivileged children are usually two or three years behind because they have trouble focusing,” Louise Nelson says. “Music works the right and left sides of their brains, and studies show that kids who are in a music program perform better in school. Their behavior gets calmer, and their self-esteem improves – like watching a flower unfold.”

By the end of this year, Guitars Not Guns expects to graduate more than 2,000 students, ready to rock across the United States, Canada and England. Funding comes from raffles, music festivals and corporate sponsors such as the Gibson Foundation. Georgia’s first chapter started in Augusta and then took root in Athens, where local celebrities pitch in.

If Music Be the Food of Love: “I can’t express fully how important music was in my childhood, giving me a safe place, and now, how much it has done to put food on my table and strengthen my belief in the goodness of people,” says roots rocker Caroline Aiken, who works with the organization. “If I can turn a kid on to music’s healing form of self-ex-pression, maybe they will carry it with them the rest of their life and, in turn, give it to another kid some-where down the line.”

Categories: Organizations