"Providing the gift of music to underserved children with a hunger to play."

Music Education Heroes: Helen White, Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM)

Helen White was just trying to spice up a music class.

She was the elementary school counselor for Allegany County, N.C. She also is an avid musician – guitar and fiddle – who frequented the fiddle competitions and music festivals of the mountainous area where she lived. Through her job, she knew every kid in the county, and she knew those kids weren’t attending those events.

So one day, she saw the music teacher in one of her schools showing pictures of instruments to his class to teach them about the instruments. She convinced him to let her bring in some instruments the next week and let the children spend 30 seconds playing the instrument of their choice.

There was a learning-disabled girl in the class. She was in third grade but old enough to be in fourth – she had been held back a year. “She was bigger than me … heavier, too,” White recalled.

The girl was from a musical family – several of its members had formed a string band years ago, before she was born. She made the most of her 30 seconds. “She hunkered over his bass and began to play,” White said. “She pulled these tones out of it nobody had heard before. The class went silent. Then, it erupted in applause.”

That moment changed Helen White’s life. She determined right then she had to bring this music to these kids. It was theirs after all – their heritage, their tradition, their community. She wasn’t so much looking to create master musicians as to introduce them to the music community of relatively healthy role models and maybe, in some cases, reawaken some dormant DNA.

And that’s how Junior Appalachian Musicians – or JAM – was born. What began with one program in one school has grown to 22 programs in three states that serve more than 900 kids – about 60 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-cost meals in their schools.

White’s role has evolved as well. She took an early retirement from her job as school counselor and now serves as the regional director of Junior Appalachian Musicians, Inc. The programs are autonomous and must raise their own money. But she wants them to observe standards – criminal background checks for the adults who interact with kids, community-based boards of directors to oversee operations and some assurances the teachers know their craft. Since JAM, Inc. doesn’t fund the groups, it gains some leverage in part from its ability to distribute instruments to start-ups or those struggling financially or growing rapidly.

And that’s where Hungry For Music comes in. A few times each year, the Hungry For Music van rolls into Galax, Va., in the far southwestern corner of the state, with instruments to donate to JAM. Fender guitars and banjos are the most common donations, but other instruments are donated as well. White has two new groups – one with 65 kids, another with 80 – and they are growing thanks in part to a large donation of instruments by HFM in May.

“Instruments are a huge expense for groups when they start up,” White said. “The cost is a real barrier to entry, and we don’t want it to be.”

Now, one of White’s biggest challenges is to keep groups from hoarding instruments. “It’s a big problem, They want to save instruments so they can improve on what they have,” she said. “So we ask if you don’t use an instrument for a year to please return it so we can it into the hands of someone who will.”
Which meshes nicely with the mission of Hungry For Music, which also seeks to get instruments from people who don’t use them anymore into the hands of people who do.

“We’re trying to get these kids into this big surrogate family, this big community where they can hang out,” White said. “Hungry For Music has been great to us. They call and say, ‘Here’s what we have. What do you need?’ It’s been terrific to be associated with them.”


Please consider a donation to Hungry for Music today and help put a music instrument into the hands of a deserving child.

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