Eliana Ramirez (not her real name) was enrolled in Harmony Project by her mom at the age of thirteen, when she was released from a juvenile detention center where she had been remanded for drug use and fighting. Eliana’s mom hoped that Harmony Project would keep Eliana busy and help her stay out of trouble. The strategy worked. Eliana became so deeply engaged in learning to play the violin within Harmony Project that she rose to become Concertmaster of one of our most advanced orchestras.
When Eliana graduated from high school, she enrolled at a California State University where she majored in Spanish Language and Literature. She was a first generation college student. Later, she was thrilled when she learned that her application had been accepted and she would be able her to spend her junior year of college in Santiago, Chile, attending one of that country’s most highly rated universities. Language would not be a problem. Eliana’s parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born and Spanish was her first language.
Eliana thrived in her demanding program at the university in Chile. But despite her careful planning, by the middle of the first semester of her (year-long) program, she was nearly out of money. There had been fees and costs that she hadn’t anticipated. She was already living on ramen noodles. It was clear that the funds she had left would not last the semester, let alone the year.
She didn’t have anyone she could ask for help. Eliana’s parents had no savings. They struggled to pay their own bills.
What could she do?
Eliana picked up her violin and began to play pieces she knew by heart. Playing always calmed her whenever she felt frazzled. She was grateful that Harmony Project had gifted her with the instrument when she graduated from high school – and from the program. She didn’t know what she would do without it. Her violin felt like her closest friend.
After she had played for a while, Eliana had a thought. She put her violin away, dressed warmly, fixed her hair and left her dorm, carrying her violin in its case. She went straight to a subway station near the financial district.
At the station, Eliana selected a busy spot, opened her case, took out her violin, said a quiet prayer – and began to play. She played the same pieces that she played to calm herself whenever she felt upset or was having a difficult day.
People stopped to listen. Many put money into her open case. Eliana earned enough money that day to cover her expenses for the next two weeks. She returned to play her violin at that subway station two or three times a week for the remainder of her stay in Chile. Not only did she earn enough to cover the expenses of her year in Chile, she also earned enough to travel throughout South America on her breaks from school.
The dedication, creativity and resilience that Eliana had developed within Harmony Project enabled her to realize her dream and to complete her program in Chile.
When Eliana returned to California, she completed a BA in Spanish Language and Literature. She has since completed an additional year of foreign study in Mexico as the recipient of a Fulbright award.
Eliana was recently accepted into a PhD program in linguistics at a prominent California university. She looks forward to teaching and to conducting research as a professor of Spanish Language and Linguistics. She also hopes to serve as a role model and mentor for young Latinas who may have had difficult early lives, such as her own.
As I reflect on Father’s Day , I silently salute all the hard-working fathers I’ve known – and all those I’ll never meet – whose unshakeable commitment to their families and to their children makes all the difference in the world.
Here’s how one Harmony Project father taught me the meaning of commitment.
As Harmony Project enrollment grew within Los Angeles County, we needed larger and larger spaces where our students could give musical performances for their families and friends.
The Hall of Liberty is an almost perfect place for us. It’s a beautiful performance hall. It seats about 1200 people. And it’s available free of charge to community groups.
The down side is that the Hall of Liberty is located in the middle of the Forest Lawn cemetery and memorial park in Burbank, CA. That means it’s more than a mile from the nearest bus stop. And many (or most) Harmony Project families rely on public transportation. So when Harmony Project students perform at the Hall of Liberty, many of them (and their families) walk the last mile from the bus stop to the hall, and then back again, after the performance.
Some years ago, after an afternoon of Harmony Project performances at the Hall of Liberty, I found myself driving past many large families walking back to the bus stop with their children. I wished I could offer them all a ride. But my car was small and the families were large. There were grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins – and lots of small children. I marveled, as I often did, at the way families come together to support the progress of their children within Harmony Project.
Then, up ahead, I saw a boy walking beside his father, carrying a violin. I could definitely offer the two of them a ride. I drove up beside them and stopped.
The father was hesitant. But when I explained that I was the founder of Harmony Project and urged him to let me give them a ride, he relented.
“Just to the bus stop,” he said.
When I asked where they lived, I realized they had traveled nearly ten miles -- the last mile on foot -- to get to the recital. The trip to the hall had required them to take several different buses and had taken more than two hours. Their return trip would take them at least that long or longer. I could make the return trip with them in my car in twenty minutes – so I insisted on driving them home.
What I learned about that family during the drive that day gave me new appreciation for the impact of a father’s commitment. I also gained a whole new perspective on the magnitude of the impact that Harmony Project has on children and families from extremely low-income homes.
The boy, Diego (not his real name), was eleven years of age. He had been studying violin within Harmony Project for three years. Diego’s mother was at home with his infant brother and his seriously ill little sister, who was nearly three. For most of her life, the only way they had been able to feed Diego’s sister was through a tube that went straight to her stomach. Diego’s sister had already had several operations, and would soon have another. The boy’s father told me that the doctors at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles still didn’t know what was wrong with his daughter. They kept hoping they would find out.
My head spun.
This family had a newborn at home, the challenges of a seriously ill toddler and an extremely low-income household. I figured that Diego might have become invisible to his parents (and to himself) – if it wasn’t for Harmony Project. But Diego had been learning violin within Harmony Project since his little sister was born. Within Harmony Project, Diego had an identity of his own. He was learning to express himself through his violin. He was constantly learning new skills. And he was part of a group of Harmony Project students with which he practiced and regularly performed.
Despite everything else he had on his mind that day, Diego’s father had made Diego and his Harmony Project performance a priority. He had traveled with his son for two hours, by bus and by foot, to bring him to the recital hall. If I hadn’t offered them a ride back home, their round-trip to the hall and back would have taken at least four hours.
I thought of all those large families that were making a similar hours-long trip that day - those grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and small children. I realized once again how much Harmony Project mattered to our students and their families.
I also appreciated how much the commitment and support of a student’s family matters – such as the commitment of Diego’s dad.
Harmony Project students learn to commit to the process of their own learning by watching their own parents – and Harmony Project teachers, staff and peer mentors – commit to supporting their progress over multiple years.
Margaret Martin, MPH, DrPH
Dr. Martin is the Founder of Harmony Project, a national music-based mentoring program that has won multiple major awards. She is also a Director of Harmony Project National Division, which helps cities and school districts launch successful Harmony Project programs in low-income communities throughout the U.S. Dr. Martin is the mother of three adult children.