It’s a place where breaking away from the norm is not natural. Acting hard and closed off is part of the daily routine.
But sometimes, all it takes is for one brave individual to step up and sing a song to change the perception of an entire class at the Tulare County Probation Juvenile Detention Facility.
“He got up and sang. It wasn’t that great. But the fact that he did it, the [students] applauded and everybody said they wanted a copy of the lyrics. He broke the ice. After that, we’ve never, not had a singer,” said Carlos Rodriguez, a music teacher at the facility. “We see in time, all the time, the students come through.”
It’s something that’s been happening often during the new Upbeat Music Program at the probation department’s Juvenile Detention Facility and its neighboring Youth Facility.
“It’s absolutely wonderful. I don’t know how we ran the program before without it. It really does change students,” said Karon Valdivieso, learning director for at both facilities. “We’re tapping into an inner resource the students didn’t know they had. To channel that energy to something positive is great.”
The music program, which is an extracurricular activity, is the only year-round arts program at the two facilities. While at the facilities, the minors attend school daily and are also provided with the basic necessities of life.
The Juvenile Detention Facility houses minors charged with crimes while they await court action. The Youth Facility is a dorm-style commitment facility.
To be part of the Upbeat Music Program, students must behave, pass their courses and receive an entry from the learning director.
“It’s institutional. It’s the real deal when you walk in there,” Rodriguez said. “It’s what you think a prison atmosphere is like. There are guards and a lot of doors.”
Find something they want
A former program director at the facilities once told teacher John Vaca, “if you want to make this job easier, figure out something these kids are going to want from you.”
Find something they want from you and help build relationships, he said. Vaca began bringing his guitar, playing simple tunes and the kids were interested. They wanted to learn.
He knew he had found what they wanted from him.
“It did become a relationship builder. The kids were seen in a different light. The teachers were seen in a different light,” he said. “Relationship were being formed on the outside, too.”
The Juvenile Detention Facility and the Youth Facility began to talk and they asked Vaca to start a formal class. Music class began to take place before school, after school, and on some Saturdays.
For four years, Vaca taught the basics of playing the guitar. It was all that was available because it had been more than 30 years since he had even touched his guitar.
It suddenly came to him: forming a band has to be the next step. While he saw himself teaching “basic math,” he knew the perfect person to come in and teach “advanced mathematics.”
Once Rodriguez got through some of their attitude, which he said isn’t always necessarily their fault, all of a sudden their true colors start coming out and they have a willingness to learn.
“They’re opening their hearts to whatever you’re going to show them and they start learning how to break through uncomfortable zones,” he said. “…something as simple as opening their mouth to sing and speak correctly is something they don’t practice because it doesn’t look cool.”
Vaca advocates for the program and Rodriguez has a knack to teach large groups of youth, who trust and believe in him that they’ll be successful, Valdivieso said,
Vaca agrees and knows the students really enjoy Rodriguez’s presence on campus.
“When he’s gone they ask about him and they miss him because he has a gift when it comes to working with these kids,” he said. “It’s amazing to me how quickly he brought these kids together. They had fundamentals and he quickly got music out of them like a band.”
Another side of their humanity
Very few people that aren’t professional singers will ever sing a cappella in front of others. In the Upbeat Music Program, it’s happening more and more.
“To think we get to the point where we’re doing that in there, it’s not a big deal because we’re in juvenile hall, it’s a big deal period,” Rodriguez said. “They’re being vulnerable, they’re being intimate.”
The program is also causing students to open up with family at home.
There’s the case of the student who wanted a guitar to start playing with his grandfather and the student who began going to church with his mother to improve his skills. Others have started playing with their siblings and cousins.
The class is building confidence, self-esteem, motivation and discipline that’s also crossing into the academic world for them.
“For a lot of these kids, in their lives they’ve been in situations where they were influenced by poor leadership, poor relationships, lack of opportunities and at times neglect,” Vaca said. “I think this program offers an opportunity for this population of kids who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to touch an instrument. A lot of the lessons they’re learning in this class are socializing, how to get along and some lifelong skills.”
For one student who couldn’t be identified, the music program takes his mind off things and makes him happy. Vaca said this student is his most talented at the moment.
“I discovered my secret, hidden talent. Music gives me something to look forward to at the end of the day,” the student said. “It makes me stay on task during regular school so that I can stay in the music class. And when I am at home, I practice every day and my family enjoys it.”
Assemblies are held twice a year at the end of the semester. That’s when the Upbeat Music Program can show what it’s been working on.
The performances at assemblies are like part of a sub-culture only a select few can witness. Those that do walk away moved.
Vaca has seen parents, teachers and even officers cry when the kids begin to perform.
“We work in this facility and sometimes you just see a kid a certain way and now they’re playing music and performing and you see a whole other part of their humanity,” he said. “I think that’s why they get emotional at the time.”
Even if they never play music again, they will never forget their performance.
“No one ever forgets that,” Rodriguez said. “They will always remember the time they entertained.”
For the last four years, students have come and gone, but the music program remains. After assemblies, teachers and administrators always see an influx of interest in the program.
Interested has also grown lately thanks to a music CD the class recorded. Kids are constantly asking for copies and playing it whenever possible.
“The look in their faces when they put on their headphones and play it back, they’re in their own world for a few minutes. They’re listening to themselves for the first time,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like meeting them in another dimension for the first time. Everything before this has been negative, a lot of it.”
Recently, the Central Valley Vietnam Veterans group, which says it tries to help kids in any form or fashion, donated $200 to the music program. Part of the funds were used to record the CD.
During music class, teachers have also noticed people who wouldn’t normally mix together because of their backgrounds are now working together to create a sound and be part of something.
Teachers, including those outside of the music program, agree that the program is making a difference and influencing these young people.
“There’s a commonality, the music. Everything else goes by the wayside,” Valdivieso said. “They’re very mature about that, if they break guitars, we won’t replace them and they know that. This is so special that we just haven’t had that problem.”
If the kids never play again after leaving the facility, Vaca’s thought is that one day they may have a son, daughter or grandchild they might be able to pass that gift on to.
“What we’re offering is a gift. We don’t have to do this. It wasn’t being done before,” he said. “It’s a great art form and a great opportunity for them.”
by Juan Villa, firstname.lastname@example.org