By Cheryl Casey
Blame it on the First Avenue Book Sale. That’s where my search for a way to give back to the community first led me: my sons were both students at First Avenue in the 1990s and before long, I was co-chairing its annual book sale – and hooked on volunteer work. As my boys moved on, Paul’s talent as a young violinist led us to the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy (OYOA) where, over the course of 10 years, he progressed through the various ensembles, beginning in Junior Strings and ending in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. During that time, I enjoyed volunteering in various capacities for the OYOA as parent rep, newsletter editor, event planner and board member.
In 2007, the final year of his Bachelor of Music at the University of Ottawa, Paul volunteered for a few hours every week in a brand new program in Centretown, OrKidstra. Every Monday after classes at the university, he would bike to the Bronson Centre and spend a couple of hours teaching violin to the children in the program. OrKidstra was inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan social experiment that has now been in existence for 35 years and has produced some amazing musicians and changed the lives of thousands of kids living in the barrios. After travelling to Venezuela and experiencing El Sistema firsthand, Tina Fedeski, a freelance flute player and teacher, Margaret Munro Tobolowska, then a cellist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Gary McMillen, co-owner (with Tina) of The Leading Note store, created The Leading Note Foundation, launching its OrKidstra program in October 2007. It was an immediate success: 46 applications were received for just 30 available spaces!
Although Paul moved to Indiana in 2008 to continue his studies, my connection to the music community remained strong. When Tina asked me to be on The Leading Note Foundation’s board of directors, I gladly accepted. The Leading Note Foundation’s sole purpose is to administer the OrKidstra program and OrKidstra’s main premise is this: offer children the instruments and the education to enrich their lives spiritually, and they will find the means to sustain themselves and, most importantly, become active contributors to society. The OrKidstra program is a true reflection of our Canadian multicultural and diverse populations. With children ages five to 18 from 38 cultural backgrounds, OrKidstra is far more than a music program – it is first and foremost a social development program. Through playing and singing together, children enjoy a sense of belonging and achievement; they learn life skills such as respect, compassion, teamwork and responsibility, which help them to achieve their true potential. OrKidstra’s motto is “empowering kids … building community.”
The benefits of a music education are beyond the reach of many families, but OrKidstra is changing this with the support of corporate and public sector organizations and a caring network of faithful individual donors. While Tina, as executive director, manages the day-to-day operations, she also works closely with the members of the board on strategic planning, governance, communications and fundraising. Now at the beginning of its seventh season, OrKidstra has expanded. It involves over 300 children from Centretown and Lowertown, 90 per cent of whom receive, at no cost, the loan of instruments and semi-private or small-group music lessons. Each student also gets the chance to play in an orchestra and/or sing in a choir. The orchestral experience is further enriched by student mentors from the University of Ottawa music program and from local high school students (many of whom are members of the Ottawa Youth Orchestra) who participate in weekly rehearsals. There is never a dull moment during after-school hours – the halls fill with the sounds of instruments being played, of children’s voices raised in song, and always, with laughter!
With a Masters degree under his belt, Paul returned to Ottawa last year. He plays regularly in the viola section of the National Arts Centre Orchestra while pursuing a D.Mus. at McGill. He is back in the OrKidstra fold as viola teacher and chamber music coach and has brought along Karen Kang, a cellist (now his wife), who has happily joined the OrKidstra family.
My work as a volunteer has led me along interesting paths and given me great joy over the years. I have met and become friends with wonderful people and have enjoyed seeing many projects come to fruition. But surely, the happiest moments are those spent watching the excitement and anticipation, the sparkle in the eyes and the joy on the faces of children performing for an audience – and watching one’s own child be part of that experience. There is great truth in the words of Maestro José Antonio Abreu, founder of the El Sistema orchestral program for Venezuelan children and youth: “Teach children the beauty of music and music will teach them the beauty of life.”
Cheryl Casey is a long-time resident of the Glebe who enjoys music, art, gardening and cooking.