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Musical Missionaries This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


It all started on a bus, headed on a band trip. My friend Philip and I were talking about how we could make a difference in the world. We threw around ideas, but most seemed overdone, impersonal, or too hard to do. Thankfully, we thought of a concept that would end up changing our lives. We decided to combine our passions for music and community service, and that day, the idea for LETEM Play was born.

Musical experiences had changed both our lives – from the camaraderie of the band program to the lessons on dedication and teamwork – and we felt that music should be part of every child’s life. From a personal perspective, band has truly made me the person I am.

I remember vividly the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. After hearing about the tragedy, we ran to our band class to play “An American Elegy,” a very special song that is one of our band’s favorite pieces. It was composed by Frank Ticheli, in memory of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings. Even though we had played it many times, that day it sounded completely different; we understood the feelings behind the melody. When we finished, dead silence rang through the band room. Almost everyone was crying. These are the experiences that a musical education gives students.

More tangibly, statistics show that music students have higher grades and test scores (almost 100 points higher on the SAT) and report the lowest lifetime use of drugs and alcohol compared to those involved in other secondary school ­activities.

The only problem is that music education can be extremely expensive, especially when instruments need to be purchased. This is what we aimed to solve when we founded LETEM Play, our 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, in February 2012.

LETEM (Life Enhancement Through Education in Music) Play’s goal is to make it easier for kids to be involved in music, regardless of financial ability. We receive donated instruments from the public, have them repaired for free through a partnership with a music store, and distribute them to kids who have applied for help. Our application is simple, requiring only a confirmation of free/reduced lunch status and participation in some sort of music program. We also frequently provide instruments to low-income school programs. Since we began, 100 percent of applicants have received an instrument, and we have distributed $12,000 worth of musical equipment. Our organization has also evolved to include an outreach aspect, and we now teach clinics and make speeches in our community. Last summer, we also pioneered a weekly music program at a youth center to make music fun for young kids who had never played an instrument.

LETEM Play has become a diverse organization that includes many aspects, but we always stick to our central mission – bringing music to the community.

Our work has gained a lot of recognition, and while acclaim is certainly nice, the fact that we are making a difference in the lives of others is most important to us. In addition, we are invested in youth empowerment, and are committed to keeping our organization 100 percent youth led: yes, we have done all the work, including gaining 501(c)3 status, without any adult help!

It is important to us that young people feel that they have the power to make a difference. We hope that our efforts will make adults realize that our generation has amazing ideas and is capable of extraordinary things.

In the next year, we plan to establish a Youth Board of Directors to increase input from other passionate teen musicians. After Philip and I leave for college, we will each take a branch of LETEM Play to our respective communities, and the Board will continue outreach efforts locally. We do not want our movement to die and are committed to bringing music to kids for the rest of our lives.

If you would like to support our mission, please visit www.letem.org. If nothing else, educate yourself about the importance of music education, and serve as an advocate for music in your community. We must not forget how much the arts can do for kids.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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