By ANALISA TROFIMUK
Miah Scott says participating in the Guitars Over Guns program during her final semester at Beethoven Elementary School helped her find the strength to get through some tough times and help her peers in Chicago do the same.
“I know Guitars Over Guns pulled that out of me. It helped me find that little itty bit of strength I needed to get through hard times,” the 14-year-old said.
Guitars Over Guns is a nonprofit, arts-based mentoring program with locations in Miami and Chicago, where it currently operates at four schools.
Students work with mentors during school hours and after school to bring their creativity to life based on their various talents. The program encourages students to “choose your sound” and express yourself through music or any art form. Scott, for example, shared her original poetry with other students.
“If you go into the program and don’t think you can do something, you learn from the teachers and other kids that you can do anything,” she said.
The Guitars Over Guns Organization (GOGO) started as an informal volunteer music mentoring project for youth from underserved neighborhoods in Miami, according to its website. The popularity led to it being formalized and offered in local schools in collaboration with Communities In Schools Miami.
The first official program started at North Miami Middle School in 2008. Over the last nine years, it has expanded to seven schools and several community centers in Miami and Chicago, with the curriculum expanded to includes dance, visual arts and annual summer camps.
In Chicago, there are programs at Evergreen Academy in McKinley Park, Beethoven Elementary in Fuller Park, UCAN Academy in Humboldt Park, and Haven Studio at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Oakland, according to Andrew DeMuro.
DeMuro is regional director in Chicago. And while he sings lead vocals in “The Shades” with vocalist/guitarists Phil Jacobson and Mark Jacobson, he’s been mentoring GOGO students in Chicago since 2015.
Along with a team of mentors and music teachers, he assists students in learning how to read music, play instruments, write lyrics, and learn other aspects of the music industry. Students even have the opportunity to record in professional facilities, such as Chicago’s 35th Street Studio.
“These kids are hungry for this development and are invested in what they are doing,” DeMuro said.
The students were actively involved in the recording process and wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes.
He’s taken the students to the studio for the past two years, and says he has seen a major difference in the students returning this year.
“They were becoming professionals before our eyes,” he said.
GOGO students at Evergreen Academy put together their own original song and music video, “Weird.” The song is about meeting new friends and thinking they might be strange at first, but, by putting energy and care into the friendship, it can become something better than expected.
This is the first time GOGO students have written an entirely original song and recorded a music video to go along with it, DeMuro said. “Weird” premiered in July at Kuma’s Corner in the West Loop.
Marian Strok, the principal of Evergreen Academy, says what GOGO has given the students is incredible. Strok says she has seen an improvement in attendance and grades since GOGO was implemented.
“It’s not just about academics,” Strok said. “These kids can find themselves through ‘finding their sound’ and are doing so much better since we’ve had art and music in our school.”
Strok, DeMuro and other GOGO mentors work with music teacher Sarah Robinson to continue educating students in the arts at Evergreen Academy.
“This work helped me find my purpose again,” DeMuro said “It has given me a sense of belief that music can do for others what it did for me.”
A total of 329 students took part over the 2016-17 school year, while DeMuro expects 368 to be served for 2017-18.
“This year we are curating our first GOGO Chicago ‘All-Star Alumni Band,’ featuring six of of program graduates, who will serve as musicians and peer mentors at Evergreen and Beethoven,” he said.
The organization is also planning to expand in Chicago, he said.
“Plans to expand to new schools are in the works and will be in motion as early as Spring 2018. Musicians interested in mentoring should absolutely get in touch!”
Scott says she plans to continue writing poetry even after her involvement with GOGO. She hopes to inspire others who might be feeling down and remind them that life gets better.
“Everyone has a story to tell. Maybe my story can help somebody else,” she said.