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Union City Music Project Gives At-Risk Kids Something to Sing -- and Play -- About

Based on Venezuela's El Sistema, local after-school program looks to nurture art appreciation in children and families

El Sistema Bowing

Serenading the audience with songs, playing the drums, and performing a small selection of orchestral music, the children of the Union City Music Project recently showed the crowd at the annual benefit concert all they had been learning.

The project, in it's third year as a nonprofit organization, aims at gathering some of Union City’s at-risk children, from ages four to ten, in an after-school program devoted to promoting arts appreciation. The program currently serves six schools in Union City.

"A program like this helps students become well-rounded, multidimensional people. It's sad that right now schools are more focused on testing than on enriching," said David Bernard, musical director of the Park Avenue Symphony Orchestra in New York City. Bernard came to speak at the benefit concert in support of the project.

The music project's founder, Melina Garcia, was inspired to start the initiative by a program she remembers from her childhood in Venezuela -- El Sistema. There are three programs modeled after El Sistema in New Jersey: Garcia's, one in Paterson; and another in Newark. They are part of a national allianceof El Sistema organizations.

"I had family members that went through El Sistema in Venezula and it meant so much to them," said Garcia. "They had such passion and dedication to play in the orchestra. It was a community. That was the one thing I never forgot."

The program provides instruments and music lessons to children across Venezuela free of charge.

The original El Sistema program was founded for disadvantaged children in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1975 by economist and composer José Antonio Abreu. It started with 11 children but now serves over 500,000 in Venezuela and has spread to over 30 other countries.

Garcia has hopes that one day the project will have the same type of success in her community.

"We have served over one hundred children and there are currently sixty in the program and we will hopefully be adding more by the spring," said Garcia. "There are thousands of kids in Union City."

The project provides children with free instruments and 24 hours of musical instruction per month, teaching them the violin, cello, percussion and giving them voice lessons.

"It's extremely beneficial in the sense that it teaches them teamwork, respect, discipline, and mental and emotional stamina and strength," said the program's music director, Samuel Marchan.

Marchan, also a native of Venezuela, had a brother involved in the El Sistema program in his home country and said that part of the reason he joined the project is because he wanted to help reflect the positive things happening in Venezuela.

"There are very limited opportunities for kids in Union City to access arts education and we wanted to help provide that," said Marchan.

As part of the project, the teachers start the children off with cardboard instruments, which they play for three to four months. This is to help them learn the fundamentals, according to Marchan.

"One of the most beautiful things I've learned as a teacher is that after the children have played their cardboard instruments for a while, they realize the music doesn't come from the instruments but from within themselves," said Marchan. "That's very special. It's easier for them when they go to the real instruments."

And traveling on cultural trips with their families to see renowned musicians introduces the children to a world that most of their immigrant parents have never experienced.

"Parents here who are new immigrants work so hard to just put food on the table. Often, they have kids with humongous talent but just can't afford to pay for these programs for them," said Garcia. "I've had parents cry on a cultural trip to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center with the children. They had never seen a professional musician play."

Union City is the most densely populated city in the country and with many parents working all day, Garcia described the situation as a setup for disaster.

"There is no Boys and Girls Club or YMCA. The parents who are working can't afford babysitters. Unsupervised children with idle time in not a good thing," Garcia said.

Not only is the project trying to provide a better environment for young children but for budding teenagers as well, who teach the younger children alongside their adult instructors.

"I've been mentoring for a year and a half. We teach and do private lessons with the children." said 16-year-old Hannah Hernandez. "I think this program is important because I feel all kids should have some knowledge of music."

Hannah's brother, Joshua Hernandez, 14, is also a mentor in the program along with their other two siblings.

"Being apart of this program helps me feel like I am helping other people. It's taking what I have learned in music and spreading the wealth," Joshua said. "I think it's positive because the children are getting a music education, which can take you places. "

He continued, "in big cities like Union City it's good to have different skills and be able to earn your keep. These kids are very teachable and need to be taught so that the next generation after them can be better. I love doing this."

But regardless of all the good work the program does for the community, it needs more funding, according to Garcia.

Garcia, who quit her job to start the program, stated that the project is funded by donations obtained from fundraisers like the annual benefit concert, as well as from foundations such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Turrel Foundation, and D'Daddario Foundation and private backers like Target and Wellsfargo.

"We need supporters and that is one of the most challenging things for me." Garcia is the sole person who is not paid in the project.

Nevertheless, she is still enthusiastic.

"I want to see this program in every city," said Garcia. "There are so many more children to serve."

Maya Chung is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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