Foster kids get ‘A Chance To Rock’
By Jeff McCord
On Monday night, May 1st, upstairs at Antone’s, Zach Person shares the stage for the first time with Go-Go and Rock’s Roll Hall of Famer Kathy Valentine. The occasion is a fundraiser for the organization A Chance To Rock, a non-profit that helps foster children receive music education. And opening the show will be a couple of the program’s beneficiaries.
A Chance To Rock is a relatively new non-profit, hoping to expand its reach beyond the dozens of kids whose lives are already being altered. But how? And why?
Children in foster care are fraught with problems. The overwhelming majority of them have experienced some kind of severe family trauma. Their graduation rates are low, and those aging out of foster care are statistically much more likely to face homelessness or incarceration. In states where social service spending per capita is the highest, foster kids seem to fare the best. But Texas is not one of those states. In fact, it’s one of the worst.
In a recent study, based on 2016-2020 data, done by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a children’s advocacy group, Texas was a cellar dweller, ranking 45th of the 50 states. This is consistent over time with other studies done by this organization and many others.
Fortunately, there are private non-profits are stepping in to fill the void. One of them here in Austin, the Austin Angels, pairs fundraising, mentors, and volunteers, all in support of foster care children and their adopted families. The Angels have paired with the philanthropic arts organization Nelda Studios to present A Chance to Rock, working in conjunction with a handful of music schools. It was at one of those schools, Band Aid, where the concept initially began.
The Band Aid School of Music was launched in 2009 by James Mays. They teach private lessons, and mentor kids to play music, not just on their own, but with each other. Like many area music schools, Band Aid is a for-profit venture. But Mays always wanted to be more inclusive.
“I actually had a student who came to me wanting to do a nonprofit,” says Mays, “which I had been wanting to do for a long time myself. But I just didn’t have the bandwidth. And so we came up with the name A Chance to Rock, the idea of a music education nonprofit to help disadvantaged kids. And we started to take it to schools as an after-school program. We did that for a semester, and it was successful. We had a number of kids come out of that program, and then we gave them scholarships to Band Aid.”
The student behind the non-profit moved on, but Mays kept the idea in his back pocket.
“I kept the name and just waited for the right moment to reignite it. And what happened was a former Band-Aid mom and dad, Jen Freeman and Eric Freeman, [they] work for Nelda and Carl Buckman, who are philanthropists. Nelda is amazing at going out and working with the arts and has a soft spot for children experiencing foster care. So we started this initiative with Nelda and the Austin Angels. The Austin Angels is an amazing organization that works with children experiencing foster care, and provide advocates to stick with the kids as they move from one foster family to another. They help create this sense of consistency for the children who are leaving everything behind and going to a different environment. Really tough stuff.”
With all the difficulties these children and their families face on a day-to-day basis, how does learning to play I-IV-V chords on the guitar fix anything?
Tiffani [last name withheld at her request] is a public school teacher in Austin. The three foster children she and her husband adopted, a girl and two boys, ages 8-12, are all in A Chance to Rock.
She remembers how it all happened. “Austin Angels sent out an email about, ‘Hey, would your child like a chance to rock?’ And I didn’t even get the whole email out before my kids were jumping up and down. ‘Mommy, can we play an instrument? Mommy, can we go, please?’”
“My boys play electric guitar. My daughter started off playing electric guitar, but now she’s playing the piano. So now we have a keyboard at home.”
A Chance To Rock not only arranges lessons, but it also allows the kids to take home the instruments -guitars, keys, electronic drums – to practice. This can be transformative.
Foster kids each face their own unique set of challenges. Yet the love of music is universal.
Tiffani confirms this is true for her kids. “They just really love to sing and dance and they like to express themselves. And this gives them a wonderful outlet to do that. It also gives them a positive way to do it. And they absolutely love going to Band Aid. Their music teacher is Mr. J, he’s awesome. He’s real patient with them and understands that they’re kind of new to doing these things. It has just been an amazing experience. So much so that at school, all three of them are also now playing the violin.”
Through its fundraising activities, A Chance To Rock wants to expand its outreach throughout the community. It currently has four music schools enrolled, including the Buda and Round Rock regions. But with the state’s overburdened foster care program, the potential to expand is almost limitless.
“Last year we held just shy of 30 kids,” James Mays says of his Band Aid school. “The last time I checked, we had 28 kids enrolled. And the goal this year is 100.”
It’s easy to imagine the boost in self-esteem that comes with learning to play music and getting the chance to do that in public. For kids already at a disadvantage, this seems a special opportunity.
“Our children were already receiving services through Austin Angels when we became part of their lives,” says Tiffani. “I just wanted to keep as much consistency for them as possible. So I didn’t really change anything, my husband and I, so they would feel that just because they moved to a new family, [that] didn’t mean they had meant they had to lose every single thing.”
A Chance To Rock has offered them something to gain.
“What I have noticed is they don’t want anything to get in the way of them being able to play or practice or go [to lessons]. And I told them, ‘Yes, I want you to do this, but homework, schoolwork, you have to keep your grades up. All of those things come first.’ With that extra motivation, coupled with the fact that they really, really enjoy learning, they are proud to show me their grades. They don’t want anything to interfere with them being able to go to participate and play their instruments and yeah, they’re super excited about it. So it has been a good intrinsic motivator to keep a good, healthy focus on everything.”