Sounds of hope - After-school music program reaching 200 children
A music program at OKC-St. Luke’s for disadvantaged children fulfills a dream for its benefactors, Phil Busey Sr. and his wife, Cathy.
The Buseys, who own Delaware Resource Group, a defense contractor, decided several years ago that they wanted to fund an after-school program to benefit children in the inner city. They met with Bob Long, senior pastor of St. Luke’s, about their idea.
"We wanted to make sure we’re in a church that could support us," Cathy said.
Mark Parker, dean of the Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University, shared with them some music CDs from El Sistema (The System), a youth orchestra program in Venezuela. The Buseys were intrigued enough that a visit to an El Sistema program in Los Angeles followed.
The Los Angeles trip was an eye-opener, Cathy said. The program was located in an area recognized as gang territory.
Despite the neighborhood, the children were engaged and excited to be there, she said. "It was more than a music program."
Cathy, who studied music at OCU, was impressed to see the children’s level of musicality. The instruments they had been given to play were their most prized possessions, she said.
More than that, the Buseys saw, the program gave children hope.
Their efforts brought El Sistema to Oklahoma City in 2013. Now, "we’re seeing some of the same things here in Oklahoma City," Cathy said.
So far, 220 children are enrolled, and there is a waiting list. The program draws from elementary schools within a few miles of St. Luke’s.
Students are taught by a combination of college professors and private music teachers.
Music students from OCU, who are required to do volunteer service, also help. The idea of volunteer work that can make a difference appeals to them, Cathy said.
She believes the people who have joined El Sistema have answered God’s call. She likes to say that when someone sees an opportunity and takes it, "that can’t be odd. That has to be God."
The volunteers and staff "have not been picked by me or anyone else. By God," she said.
Director is Robyn Hilger, an OCU graduate and nationally certified music teacher, and a St. Luke’s member.
"We’re very blessed to see God at work in our mission," she said.
Robyn sees what she calls "miracles of the moment" within El Sistema. Some of the students are struggling in school, and some of their families don’t have enough food. "They will call us and ask for help. That represents a big change in our community."
Robyn sees it as "God at work providing a place where people feel safe and secure."
During a session, students also work on their homework, with tutors to help them.
The Buseys have invested $1.5 million in the program over the last four years. "It’s our responsibility to give back," Cathy said. After giving the program its start, they have sought grants and foundations’ support to help it grow.
El Sistema students learn how to take care of their instruments and can take them home for practice. Some of the instruments cost $3,000 to $5,000, but not one has been lost, pawned or damaged, Cathy said.
When families move away, the children are allowed to take instruments with them if they think they will find ways to continue to play.
Students as young as third-graders can enroll in the program. They can continue through high school. The staff also will try to find ways to help them go on to college.
El Sistema at St. Luke’s now has three full orchestras. To perform together, they travel to Rose State College, which has a venue to accommodate all of them.
Some of the children have advanced enough to even compose music for the orchestra. El Sistema offers performances by smaller ensembles at special events, such as the OKC Jazz Festival, music teacher conventions, and luncheons.
Young musicians of El Sistema, an after-school program of OKC-St. Luke’s, play their violins.
One girl’s smile says it all as members of El Sistema, an after-school music program founded by OKC-St. Luke’s, get ready to play.