Our charity spotlight this week is Guitars Over Guns, a non-profit dedicated to delivering high impact art-based mentoring to empower at risk youth. The organization is based in Miami but also works in Chicago communities. As one of our Up To Bat Charities, Kaehler's is proud to support this important work.
We spoke with Chad Bernstein, the CEO and founder of the organization, to learn more about the work that they do.
Q. How did you know when you wanted to start this organization?
A. I realized I wanted to start something like this after a transformational experience playing music for a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. I saw, first-hand, the power that music has to unify people of all walks of life. Bringing these students into the music making process through music that was familiar to them completely disarmed their initial guardedness and gave us a way in, a bridge to create a connection.
Q. What is the most challenging part of working in this field?
A.The problems our youth are facing are complex and it's hard not to want to tackle all of them, so staying focused is difficult but it's the best way to create real impact. It's also hard not to take it all home with you - we grow very close to our students so it easy to be deeply affected when you know what some of them are fighting through. Another major challenge is that non-profit organizations, many of which are addressing important societal issues, are often expected to operate on volunteerism and without the investment into infrastructure that any other normal business would. I think that this is why the average lifespan of non-profits are only a few years.
Q. What are the differences between what youth are experiencing in Miami and in Chicago?
A. Youth violence rates across the country are bad, but the number of deaths and shootings in Chicago is horrifying. There are a lot of underlying issues in Chicago that are similar to Miami, but the combination of poor housing solutions, school closures that are pulling kids across gang lines, and the lack of hope that some of our youth have is really troubling. These are problems that can't be fixed from behind a desk - it's going to take a unified and coordinated effort with boots on the ground, backed by resources necessary to empower those groups doing the work. In both cities, I am encouraged by some of the steps I'm seeing taken, particularly the ownership of the community to address these issues. It takes a village to raise a child. Well, these are our kids - we are the village. It's time we stop looking around for solutions and start creating them.
Q. Throughout the years the organization has been running, has there been a specific moment where you've felt particularly successful?
A. We have been blessed to have many stories of success and some high accolades to accompany them. Guitars Over Guns has been featured on CNN Heroes, in People Magazine, and on the Steve Harvey Show. Our greatest successes, though, are the students that have been through the program who have come back to mentor their younger peers. It is truly remarkable to know that we have created something that our students feel so connected to that they consider GOGO their home and their family. Watching our alumni come back to make sure other students have the experience that they had is something that will stay with us forever - that is real community change.
We have one student, Santa, that came to us after being expelled from another school. She had been failing out and getting regularly suspended for fighting. During some of her time home from school, she had been playing around with a guitar and ultimately found Guitars Over Guns after school when she started attending North Miami Middle. Santa was overwhelmed by the joy in the room and the excitement of students playing different instruments; she saw an opportunity to learn what she was interested in. After her first solo performance, she collapsed in my arms in tears. She had been so nervous and had never put herself out there in such a vulnerable way. She was overcome by emotion that the audience loved her so much. 4 years later, Santa continues to perform all over South Florida, is an honor roll student, the vice president of her high school drama club, and recently gave a TED Talk where she explained that Guitars Over Guns gave her an opportunity to know and find herself in a place where she felt like she could be celebrated for who she was, without feeling like she needed to resort to violence and other influences that dominated her environment just to fit in.