Joyful noise on the Downtown Eastside

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      The volunteers of the new St.James music academy bring the joys of musicianship to the Downtown Eastside kids.

      On a late Wednesday afternoon in October, a homeless man settles into a sleeping bag on the steps of St. James Anglican Church in the Downtown Eastside, at the corner of Gore and Cordova streets. The site is just a couple of blocks away from Main and Hastings, the infamous focal point of the city's most desperately drug-addicted citizens.

      Step inside the church basement, however, and the harshness of the neighbourhood seems miles away. In one space, a gaggle of excited elementary-school-aged children are making their way through a violin lesson, each with a pint-sized instrument held tightly beneath their chin. Similar scenes are taking place in other rooms, with guitars, pianos, and cellos.

      It's the fifth week of the St. James Music Academy's inaugural term, with 50 of some of the city's most disadvantaged children taking part in weekly classical-music lessons for an annual cost of $20–a fee that is reimbursed to those who complete the yearlong program. And it's all happening because of the travails experienced by one of the church's parishioners.

      Kathy Walker, a 42-year-old married mother of five girls aged eight to 16, wanted affordable music lessons for her children, but kept running into roadblocks. "I discovered fairly quickly that this was expensive and not very accessible in the neighbourhood in which I live," she explains, in conversation at the church. Two years ago, her eldest daughter was turned down from the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach program because of limited space. Around the same time, the Strathcona Community Centre removed the subsidy from a piano program in which three of Walker's daughters were enrolled.

      "I thought, 'If I'm going through this, this must be a dynamic for many other families,'" Walker recalls. Her next thought? "We should have our own music school."

      That was two years ago. After forming a working group, Walker got the church's blessing to use its basement for the initiative and, over the next 24 months, spent countless hours ensuring the academy's doors would eventually open. Sunrise Market in Chinatown agreed to chip in free, healthy after-school snacks for the students. Music retailer Long & McQuade gave the school a discount on rental instruments. Numerous donors, including London Drugs, pitched in to raise the $50,000 in annual operating costs of the enterprise. A board of directors was established, including local luminaries such as Vancouver Recital Society artistic director Leila Getz and the CBC's Bill Richardson. Walker and Gerald Harder, the church's–and now the academy's–music director, interviewed teachers and hired Benson Benovoy for guitar, Marie Calvert and Jill Samycia for piano, Sarah Westwick for violin, and Catriona Day and Celia Olson for cello. Walker also selected students from Strathcona elementary school, with the help of school and community-centre resource workers and First Nations support workers.

      Finally, in the third week of September, the academy doors opened. For Harder, it was an overwhelming moment. "We had an orientation session in mid September, and it's when all these kids and their parents started streaming in the doors for the session that I realized, 'This is real,'" he recalls. "It was terrifying, in a way, because we've committed. We've committed to this neighbourhood. We've committed to doing this project and to these kids."

      Every Monday or Wednesday, Walker or a volunteer picks up students from Strathcona elementary school and walks them over to the church where, after a snack, some start their group lessons while others do homework or take part in arts and crafts. After switching, they all take part in a choir practice led by Harder. While some of them have behavioural issues related to difficulties at home or, in some cases, developmental challenges, says Walker, they all seem to be relishing the opportunity to explore something that, for many, had until recently seemed unattainable.

      "I know that maybe some have background with fetal alcohol effects and fetal alcohol syndrome, attention-deficit issues–children who struggle to focus and concentrate. But we have found in this environment, by and large, they are thriving," she notes.

      Walker, who manages a housing co-op part-time, also sees the school as an important way of ensuring that the community continues to be supported in the coming years. "With what's going on in the Downtown Eastside around changes and gentrification and Woodward's and all of this, I think it's very important to secure, for the future, a space that will always be accessible to children without adequate resources," she says. "I don't know what it's going to look like in five years, but I know that these children will still live here, many of them, and I want to make sure that we have established something like this that will always be available."

      For all the grittiness of the Downtown Eastside, Walker, who has lived here for 14 years, insists she'd never want to live anywhere else. "I love the neighbourhood.”¦I think it takes some work to overcome some of the difficulties of living in the community, but it pays off when you do and stay connected to your neighbours and really get out and about. I find it's a very welcoming place to be."

      On this Wednesday night, with the excited sounds of children discovering the joys of making music, it isn't hard to agree.

      Link: St. James Music Academy


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      Dec 22, 2010 at 11:04am

      This article being from 2007, i don't know if anybody'll ever see this comment, but: this makes me crazy - here sits the Most Important thing Of All that's going on in this city - and that i didn't know about it (i who totally follow music here, sing in choirs etc.) and i look at the sponsors and neither govt is involved while they're busy touting the Olympics and eliminating local artists and here's This Amazing Wonder! It needs more PR! Internationally maybe - go international! Fantastic and BRAVO!!