Chad Bernstein remembers playing music for a roomful of kids in juvenile detention.
A woman who worked at the facility had asked the band, Suenalo, to show the children how music can change their lives. But as soon as the band walked into the room, they were met with cold stares.
“Talking to them wasn’t really working, so we started playing,” said Bernstein, the trombonist. “Once we did, you definitely started to see heads bobbing and they were into it.”
But when the band stopped playing, the kids’ eyes glazed over. They started goofing around, and the guards had to maintain order.
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“This one kid in the back of the room just started singing na-na-nueve. I’ll never forget that moment,” Bernstein said. “The guards were trying to shut him up, but we decided to take that and make a song out of it.”
Bass, keys, horns and guitar came together to create a beat. Some of the kids started rapping. And the idea of using music to reach troubled kids was born.
“A moment was created, and it took everyone with it,” said Bernstein.
Guitars Over Guns (GOGO) provides free music therapy sessions for at-risk youths. Bernstein, 31, founded GOGO in 2008 when he was 24 and a student at the University of Miami.
Today, GOGO reaches about 180 children, operating out of North Miami Middle, Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle and Citrus Grove Middle. Last year, it expanded to two schools in Chicago — where Bernstein grew up.
Local musicians work with the students in hour-and-a-half sessions twice a week. Through partnerships with schools and other local agencies, the kids who are struggling academically also get tutoring.
“We’ve had kids who’ve been abused, neglected, abandoned, raped, suicidal,” said Bernstein. “It’s a very scary situation for a lot of our kids. They get to vent. . . . We provide them with a safe space for them to be themselves.”
Michelle Forman is a vocalist who has performed with Suenalo. Bernstein came to her when the program started, and today she mentors students at North Miami Middle on Tuesdays and at Citrus Grove on Thursdays.
Forman can relate to teen rebellion, saying it was a therapist she saw during this period who changed her life.
“He saved me from myself and helped me get through some really emotional things in my life,” said Forman, 39. “I had someone like that who helped me. It’s a sense of paying it forward. . . . I’m trying to teach kids that music can be an outlet for feelings, for anger, for so many things.”
Britney Arroyo, 15, and Rachelle Gabriel, 14, have both graduated from the program. Through GOGO, they’ve performed at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair, Miami Book Fair International, and at the Ball & Chain Lounge in Little Havana. Though they both go to different high schools, they still attend sessions with Forman and the rest of the more than 30 children at North Miami Middle.
On a recent afternoon, they sat with Forman and Edward Adams, 13, an aspiring singer at North Miami Middle.
“If we ever have a problem, we know we can talk to the mentors,” said Britney. “We’re a family and we stick together.”
Andres Mejia, 14, is entering his second year in the program. He happened upon it while following around a friend after school. At first, he was worried about joining because he didn’t know how to play any instruments, but a mentor assured him that it didn’t matter. Last year, Andres played the bass. This year, he’s trying out the trumpet.
“The environment is just really awesome,” said Andres. “Outside of here you see a lot of racism and bullying, but in here you don’t see any of that.”
About two weeks ago, GOGO put on a performance to promote the program. Immediately, 71 kids signed up. Within the week, 30 students were attending sessions, said Jono De Leon, GOGO’s chief operating officer. (He used to be a music teacher at North Miami Middle who worked with GOGO.)
“There’s this place that exists between the audience and the performer where their energy and your energy coalesce and create this much greater thing,” Bernstein said. “That place is where I want to live my entire life. GOGO is about giving that moment to another generation of kids. That’s the real power of what we’re doing — creating a moment that elevates these kids, as well as all of us.”
To learn more about Guitars Over Guns, visit guitarsoverguns.org. The program’s South Florida sites include North Miami Middle School, Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle and Citrus Grove Middle.