STOCKBRIDGE -- For the 40 youngsters in the Kids 4 Harmony string-instrument program at Pittsfield's Morningside Community School, the chance to rehearse classical pieces and perform them publicly goes beyond the music.
As soft-spoken third-grader Leila Pareds, a violinist, put it shyly following this week's concert at the First Congregational Church, "It means a lot to me even though I get nervous sometimes."
Ten of the children enrolled in the program played brief selections by Beethoven, Copland, Mozart and a half-dozen other composers for more than 75 listeners. The event was hosted by the ladies of the town's Tuesday Club, established in 1892 and now meeting monthly.
For Geidens Dextre, a second-grader, Kids 4 Harmony has changed his personality.
"The program helps him a lot, he used to be so shy," said his mother, Gerdelie Jean-Louis. "As soon as he started playing music, he was a totally different kid."
"I get to bond with people," said Jean-Louis' niece, Jedros Jean-Louis, when asked what playing the violin in the ensemble means to her.
Kids 4 Harmony, a free, intensive after-school program at Morningside, is based on the well-known El Sistema approach to musical education, which was founded in Venezuela and is now spreading internationally. The local program was created by Pittsfield-based social service agency Berkshire Children & Families.
"We have always tried to offer programs that offer some degree of prevention to families and kids," said Carolyn Mower Burns, who's been Berkshire Children & Families' president and CEO since 1990. The 125-year-old organization serves more than 3,000 Pittsfield families each year by providing early education and care, parenting and family support, foster care and adoption.
When the recession hit hard in 2009, said Burns, she and the agency's board decided to switch from eroded public funding to private support through donations. Kids 4 Harmony was pinpointed as a program that would "really start to address the root causes of the issues plaguing the families we serve, the biggest being poverty," she said.
Burns listed a lack of stable housing, dangerous communities, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect as well as mental illness among the challenging circumstances facing her client families, especially in Pittsfield's Morningside neighborhood.
She had pinpointed the need for "long-term, sustained intervention" based on the pioneering Harlem Children's Zone community organization in Manhattan. "It's an intense, long-term corridor of support starting at birth," as she described that agency's accomplishments.
The answer for Berkshire Children & Families turned out to be El Sistema, which was proposed by members of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston, a volunteer, nonprofit group of players who are medical professionals. Burns' agency partnered with the group for a Tanglewood performance in 2009.
The program, which began in the 2011-12 school year at Morningside, includes not only the 40 string players from kindergarten through sixth grade but also 80 preschool vocalists called the Sunshine Singers. There's a waiting list of 15 youngsters for openings in the orchestral ensemble.
But expanding private fundraising is crucial, Burns said, since Kids 4 Harmony costs about $230,000 a year to operate, mostly in salaries for Artistic Director Alicia Stevenson, the three music teachers hired to work with the children, along with three high-school students who are paid a stipend as mentors. The agency has been supported by philanthropists like Sol Schwartz, the sketch artist and part-time Lenox resident who donated $50,000 to help launch the program.
To bolster its resources, the agency launched a $100,000 fundraising drive this month to augment the $130,000 raised since last July in order to balance the books by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.
"The children are learning about community through playing in the ensemble," said Stevenson, "not only from the professional musicians teaching them but from the people sitting right next to them, their peers and the high-school mentors."
Working parents were initially attracted by after-school day care through free music lessons every day, she added, "but the children fell in love with it and become engaged with the music. Just playing an instrument really means a lot to them, and playing classical music has been a real eye opener. They feel like they can now attain anything."
The students rehearse for 21 2 hours after every school day at Morningside.
A full-day summer program for all 120 children will be offered this July at the school, in partnership with the IS183 art school in Stockbridge. "They'll be exposed to music, the arts and intense academic work," Burns said.
On the Kids 4 Harmony wish list: Adding woodwind players and opening a second program for children in North Berkshire. Looking into the future, the "bigger dream," as described by Burns, is to create a countywide Berkshire Youth Symphony to cross all socio-economic boundaries. She's collaborating with Tracy Wilson, executive director of the Berkshire Music School.
"For kids who may face learning challenges in school or have a certain image of themselves," Burns stated, "the discipline and intensity of doing this and doing it well, we believe, will transfer to other things in their lives, and that's what we're already seeing -- their sense of pride."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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