By Sharon Ricks
Music is powerful. It can fill up a restaurant on a slow night, bring joy to a child’s face, or send an urgent message to a violent world. On a Tuesday evening in early April, it did all three at once at the Pizza Hut Restaurant on Crosstown Court in Peachtree City.
Families gathered for their evening meal around a group of guys with guitars. And the magic began:
It’s summertime and the living is easy
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking
Hush, little baby don’t you cry
Guitars and Pizza Night is hosted by Guitars Not Guns (GNG) music program, which provides guitars and free lessons in classroom settings with qualified teachers to foster kids, at-risk youth, and other deserving children in an effort to prevent violence in schools and on the streets. On this night, for every purchase, Pizza Hut donated two dollars to GNG. Customers won hats, t-shirts, art work, free pizza, and bumper stickers, and one lucky customer, Alec Duncan, walked away with a brand new guitar.
Founded in 2000 in San Jose, California by Ray Nelson, cousin to country singer Willie Nelson, the GNG music program has spread to 13 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. The Georgia Chapter started in 2006 and is led by Lt Colonel Robert Black (ret). Gibson and Guitar Center are key partners. “We have helped so many kids turn their lives around,” says Ray. “We are gathering new chapters and shooting for more and would love to be in every state. So far, we have provided guitars to 2,000 kids coast to coast.”
GNG classes meet for one hour a week for eight weeks. Each class has about 10 students, aged eight to 18, and three instructors, explains Robert. In level one, students learn the basics: how to hold the guitar, strum it, play songs, and play with others. They also learn perseverance, discipline and self-esteem. Robert says the discipline helps them focus better academically. It’s also a great social activity, he says, because it’s a lot more fun to play with other people.
Students who finish level one are encouraged to return for level two. They also enjoy a graduation party where they get to play for their parents, eat snacks, relax with friends, and welcome a distinguished visitor. Last time, it was the Mayor of Peachtree City. Both students and teachers receive a certificate at graduation, and each student receives his or her very own guitar. (That’s a secret, by the way. “The look on their faces when they find out they get to keep the guitar is priceless.” says Robert.)
GNG is not anti-gun, says Robert. In fact, he says Ray started his career as a sniper in the U.S. Army. Robert served 21 years in the Air Force including assignments in Iraq, Bosnia, and South Korea. He knows what it’s like to carry a pistol with a round in the chamber and the safety off to ensure that it’s ready when he needs to use it. He says both he and Ray still shoot recreationally.
But they are anti-gun violence. Ray says, “More people die from gun violence than have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” He notes that there have been 31 school shootings in the United States since Columbine in 1999, when 13 people were killed. He also mentions the most recent tragedy where 27 people were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Reading the list of violent tragedies on GNG’s Web site (www.guitarsnotguns.org) is troubling.
But this night is different. Tonight, the bullets are songs and the guns are guitars, and troubled and deserving youth gather for picking and pizza, not gang violence and bloodshed. “Yes, I love it,” says 11-year-old Daniel Sewell. “I get to learn all of these cool songs. There are a lot of instructors. There are teenagers, grown men and one professional player.” Daniel’s favorite song is “Smoke on the Water.” He says it has cool chord progression.
GNG teachers come in all ages, and they are all volunteers. At age 16, Sam Archbold is one of them. Last spring break, Sam took GNG international. He ran a marathon to raise money to go on a mission trip to Kenya with his church, and he asked Ray if he could take a guitar with him. “The mission trip has been the most incredible part of my life so far,” he says. He spent a few days with a man named Robert and noticed that Robert’s guitar was falling apart. So Sam did what any GNG volunteer would do: he gave Robert a brand new guitar. Robert was so appreciative that last November, Sam got an invitation to Robert’s wedding.
This spirit of giving is the hallmark of GNG. At the end of the day, it’s about giving the powerful gift of music to kids like Daniel. “When you get older and you outgrow baseball or football, and you’re not a professional, you can still have that skill of playing guitar like you did as a kid with sports,” says Daniel. “It’s gonna last a lifetime!”
GNG welcomes your support. You can start a chapter, teach a class or help out nationally. Visit their Web site at www.guitarsnotguns.org or call 770-861-2443 for more information.