For Good: Instruments of Change helps kids thrive

Kalijah Gillette of Clair Mel City doesn't hesitate when asked to rate his love of music.

"On a scale of one to 10, it's an 11,'' says the 13-year-old trumpet player. "Plus, playing an instrument helps calm me down and vent my frustrations.''

But funding his dreams of mastering the craft was a challenge. His mom, Kathy, is a stay-at home mom of four, ages 7 to 21, and his dad, Henry, is a warehouse worker. The family lives on a tight budget, with little to spare for luxuries like lessons and instruments.

That's why he's so grateful to Instruments of Change. Founded in 2009 by Glen and Kelly Schubert of Brandon, the nonprofit aims to bring music education and instruments to children who might otherwise not have access.

Kathy Gillette says Instruments of Change launched Kalijah's music studies when he enrolled in its after-school band program in fifth grade at Clair Mel Elementary, and then provided him with a brand-new trumpet when he moved on to Progress Village Middle Magnet School of the Arts, where he plays in two bands.

Giving him that foundation and self-confidence led to a successful audition for the Howard W. Blake School of the Performing Arts, where Kalijah will begin next fall. 

"He found a passion in life that he believes in,'' says the proud mother. "It keeps him focused and gives him a purpose. It's made him realize that he can do anything he puts his mind to, if he's willing to work at it.''

Schubert loves hearing stories like this. And he's heard plenty as Instruments of Change expands and makes an impact around the Tampa Bay region. In its first few years, it helped about 500 students; this past school year, nearly 500 kids took part in one of its programs.

Its motto describes its mission: "Changing Lives One Note at a Time.''

"This is going to be our breakout year,'' says Schubert, a lifelong musician who got his talent and love of the arts from his parents, both pianists. "We've been growing at a steady rate on a very small budget. Now we're looking for the corporate and community support to bring it the next level.''

Instruments of Change may be just six years old, but its genesis began long before that. Schubert, a self-described "committed capitalist,'' knew he wanted to do something meaningful that involved music after he sold his software company in 1997. A year later, he wrote the initial plan.
 
He didn't want an entitlement program that gave out free instruments to needy kids. Instead, he outlined a concept in which fifth-graders at Title 1 schools would sign a contract and attend an extracurricular music program twice a week run by Instruments of Change for the entire school year. If they kept their commitment and agreed to continue their music education in middle school, the nonprofit would give them an instrument.

"It's about accountability, responsibility, goal-setting,'' he says. "This is an opportunity to earn something, and not rely on government programs or handouts. The lesson is if you work hard, something will come of it.''

Why music? Because studies show it can make a significant difference in a young person’s life, Schubert says. Children who learn to play a musical instrument are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, tend to score higher in math and language skills, are less prone to drug and alcohol abuse, and show an increase in self-esteem and confidence in their abilities.

But regrettably, he says, many schools have been forced to cut or reduce music education due to funding.

The project “pretty much stayed on the shelf” while he continued to work in the software industry. He and Kelly also had their hands full raising three kids.

In 2009, the time was right

With a few financial backers and their own personal funds, the Schuberts put the first band programs in east Hillsborough County, first at Clair Mel Elementary near Brandon, later followed by Springhead Elementary in Plant City and Ippolito Elementary in Riverview. Rather than rely on volunteers, Schubert hires instructors from local universities, schoolteachers and retired military to lead the after-school classes for a small stipend. Instruments currently taught include flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, guitar, bass, saxophone, violin, trombone and oboe.

Instruments of Change is now also sponsoring piano lessons at the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay, a drum line with the Police Athletic League in south St. Petersburg and a guitar program at Ross Norton Recreation Center in Clearwater in Pinellas County. For the last two years, it has run an all-day band camp for music students, followed by a public performance at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

The plan is to bring the "Play It Forward'' event back to the Straz Nov. 7, but the estimated cost – around $35,000 – needs more community support. Previously, he and Kelly raised funds for the event, and then paid the shortfall when they didn’t make their goal. This year, if Schubert doesn’t get enough funding, he will likely cancel it.

"We need to make sure it pays for itself,'' he says. "We don't want to take away money from our other programs.''

Being a Community Hero

Instruments of Change is run out of Schubert's house, with a $150,000 annual budget. Nearly 90 percent of its funds go directly in the program. He serves as executive director, with Kelly working as a volunteer at the Clair Mel Elementary band program.

"Basically, we leverage other people's stuff,'' he says with a laugh. "But it’s time to get some official office space and more support. Now that we’ve put a few years into this, we can track our progress and show how this really does make a difference.''

He also got an infusion of much-needed cash from the ownership of local professional hockey team when he was named the 41st Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero of the Year in April 2014. He received a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Hero program, which he gave to Instruments of Change, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Boys and Girls Club.

Ultimately, he hopes Instruments of Change will become a national model for similar programs in other communities. 

A lot of fun, a lot of progress

Hunter Devoe, a seventh-grader at Progress Village Middle Magnet, was first exposed to music education when he joined the after-school band program at Clair Mel three years ago. Once he learned how to play the notes, he started to have fun – a lot of fun.

"It's just so cool how you can pick up an instrument and make sounds that come together,'' says Hunter, who plays the trumpet, upright bass and electric bass. He fulfilled his contract with Instruments of Change, got a new trumpet and now takes band in the first period and guitar in eighth period.

"I'm happy in the morning and I'm happy in the afternoon,'' he says. He knows he has to keep his grades up to remain in the school band, so that's a motivating factor. 

This isn't just a hobby for Hunter. He, too, plans on auditioning for Blake, and wants to play in the school's marching or concert band one day. And he's already plotting out his post-college future.

"I wouldn't mind making this my career, I love it this much,'' he says.
Schubert says his first foray into the nonprofit world has been more satisfying than he could ever have imagined. 

"There’s nothing like making a difference in someone's life, especially a young life,'' he says. "It’s one thing to be successful in the business world and get your pats on the back. But this is far more meaningful. It's going to have a long-term impact.''

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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