He was small boy of about eight years of age. He was one of 30 or so students at a predominantly African-American school in Springfield, Illinois. Brian and I were on tour, playing some performing arts centers, but also conducting small programs that we call “community outreach.”
“What are those things?” he asked, pointing to Brian’s and my guitars. “That’s a bass guitar and this is a six stringed guitar," Brian replied. “What do you do with those things?” he asked. At first, I thought the young kid was pulling our legs. But, it dawned on both Brian and myself that he was sincere. This would be the first time this young boy ever experienced live music.
Many fans have asked what community outreach programs are when they notice them on our calendar. Community outreach programs can be educational, or just pure entertainment. But they are intended to connect with various segments of society that would not normally receive live music.
Sometimes the programs can take on a humorous bent. Once, Brian and I were asked to play for the Badger Prairie Camp near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The organization takes care of children who are mentally challenged. We were to be a “grand finale” dance band. When we arrived, we were given two “security guards," who were two students who took their role seriously. They stood off to both sides of us, arms folded, grimacing and facing the dancing kids while we were playing. And they came in handy. We were playing “Ain’t Going Back” when I happened to notice some motion out of the corner of my eye. There was one of the “security guards” both hands on the neck of Brian’s mandolin, trying to pull it out of the hands of a kid who rushed up and grabbed it. Brian was out front, oblivious to this great tug of war going on about five feet behind him, playing his heart out! Luckily our security guard prevailed and the mandolin was no worse for wear.
We love to visit the Center for Head Injury in St. Louis, Missouri. Here we meet people who struggle to adapt after car accidents, drug overdoses and various other life changing events. There was one young man who was very closed off to the world, despite the best efforts of the staff to help. We started playing for the group and halfway through the show, to the amazement of everyone, he got up and began to dance, a mischievous grin on his face. Not only did he dance, but he did the Pee-Wee Herman dance! A connection was made, however briefly and it was rewarding to watch the staff’s joyful reaction to the breakthrough.
Dementia patients at nursing homes are always unpredictable. Just recently we were in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, playing for a group of residents, when we started into the classical portion of our program. I was singing “Ave Maria” and at the end of every line, a lady would shout out “Clambake!” It takes the concentration of a tight roping Wallenda to make it through such instances.
When we conducted a songwriting program for kids in a juvenile detention program near St. Joseph, Missouri, we wrote down all their idle conversation as fast as we could prior to the program starting. One kid was threatening to beat up some rival, another kid was talking about how she wanted to “just be free.” These tough kids were amazed that we “listened to them.” It was just the introduction needed to encourage them to participate. We worked on a song that told about how tough it is to not be understood by one’s peers. It was an intimate look into these kids' world and for a time, we reached a common ground.
There can be some financial support from organizations to help play the nursing homes, schools and other venues. But most of the time, it is whatever a place can afford to pay. So no one usually pursues these programs as a vocation. For us, it is more for the sharing of the moment with people and acknowledge that we are all on a journey together. It does come down to a labor of love.
Community outreach programs are very inspirational to us. One common denominator of all these places is our ability to witness real heroes at work. The staff, teachers and volunteers that are at the various places are amazing with their patience, their humor and most of all their love. And yes, our programs are just as much a benefit for them as they are for our audience as it brings a much needed change to their routine. For us, they are an important part of creating a WayGood World.