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Guitars Not Guns program helps Michigan's troubled teens

By The Associated Press • May 23, 2018 at 6:00 PM

DETROIT — At first glance, they look like young musicians tuning their guitars and preparing for a performance at a concert hall.

Clad in khaki pants and white shirts, their young fingers glide effortlessly through the guitar's scales, creating a smile that cracks through their musician-minded concentration to show off their newly acquired musical skills.

The Detroit News reports that the young musicians are youth offenders who have learned how to play the guitar in 10 weeks through the Michigan Chapter of Guitars Not Guns program. May 10 was graduation day at the Lincoln Center, a maximum security juvenile detention facility in Highland Park.

Organized in Michigan two years ago by Judge Frank Szymanski of the Wayne Circuit Court Juvenile Division, the program is aimed at teaching foster kids and at-risk teens coping skills by helping them learn to play the guitar.

Szymanski, who also is a musician, said "it's empowering to play an instrument" and learning guitar skills can help the teens realize how productive they can be.

"These are the kids who need it the most and can benefit the most," said the judge about the program.

The teens, who are not being identified because they are youth offenders, said the guitar program has helped them cope with their emotions and avoid trouble. Instead, they say, they focus on learning to play the guitar.

"It helped me get through a lot," said one of the teens on May 10 as he received a "Rock Star" certificate from Szymanski as part of his graduation from the program. "It helped me stay focused so I could do what I have to do and go home (from the juvenile detention facility."

Another teen said learning the guitar will be helpful once he is released from lockup.

"Instead of going out running the streets, I can be playing the guitar," he said admiring the new guitar he received as part of the program.

The five fledgling musicians joined the judge in a jam session featuring the popular tune by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, "See You Again." Szymanski lent his vocals.

Syzmanski said while they are not yet Jimi Hendrix, it's a start.

Local musicians Ron Jones, also a probation officer for the court, and Al Bettis guided the teens for 10 weeks in learning to play the guitar.

Jones advised the teens were the last five "who persevered" and learned to play the guitar. He told the students during the graduation Thursday that "when you are confronted by something (challenging) use the skills you learned here."

Bettis, who is scheduled to play The Ark in Ann Arbor next month, said he enjoyed working with the students. He said music was therapeutic for him and helped him cope in difficult times in his life, such as when he lost loved ones.

"For me it was an outlet. It was important for me to show them how to do something similar with the feelings they that they have ... the emotions they have," said Bettis. "Kind of purge a little bit. Then you end up with a product you can actually help other people with."

Szymanski said he hopes with additional guitars and volunteers, the program can be extended to offer four to five classes a year at juvenile facilities. He said those interested in volunteering or to help buy more guitars can contact him at the court.

The teens are taught how to play the guitar by volunteers. The program is geared toward foster children and youth at-risk in hopes of steering them away from violence.

Oakland University guitar instructor Bret Hoag, president of the Michigan chapter of the Guitars Not Guns program, said the program is becoming popular in the state and he's receiving inquiries from local people who want to get involved.

Oliver Cooper, director at Lincoln Center, said the program is helps youngsters deal with incarceration.

"It's very important because they've been through a lot," said Cooper.

Guitars Not Guns is a 17-year-old organization that has helped 4,000 youths in 12 states in the United States. There are 19 chapters.

The instruments are donated by Walk the Beat, a Michigan nonprofit cooperation that provides musical instruments and lessons for children in the program.

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