It’s after school on a Tuesday, and 11-year-old Alicia’s day is far from over.
After the school bell rings, she gets a short break. Then it’s straight to violin class, where she will practice her instrument for two hours.
Alicia’s inspiration? Her grandmother, who also played violin. She passed away before Alicia could learn from her. Now Alicia has a chance to learn the instrument her grandmother loved so much, thanks to a partnership between Multnomah County’s Bienestar de la Familia program and Metropolitan Youth Symphony.
Bienestar de la Familia serves families in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood. The program supports families in a variety of ways, including culturally specific mental health counseling, addiction services, housing and rental assistance, case management, and after-school programs.
The partnership with Metropolitan Youth Symphony is the first of its kind. The idea began in 2018 after program staff watched Raúl Gómez, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s music director, perform in the Multnomah Building boardroom for Hispanic Heritage Month. Soon after, Bienestar approached Gómez about creating a music program for Bienestar participants.
The concept reminded Gómez of his own experience participating in a music program as a child in Costa Rica. If it weren’t for that opportunity, he says, he wouldn’t have become a conductor. He wanted other kids to have a chance, so he said yes.
At first, the goal was to create one class for 10 students. Demand was so high that staff had to double the capacity. “I just could not bring myself to say no to parents who are looking for this opportunity for their kids,” Gómez says. “Because it’s my story, too.”
Students meet four hours a week, after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Before each class, some students work one-on-one with an instructor to perfect their technique. At 5 p.m., they gather to practice as a group.
The program, which began in September, will finish in mid-June with a public performance. Some students will go on to perform with Metropolitan Youth Symphony.
For many, the opportunity can be life-changing. On average, group violin lessons cost $40 to100 per month — money that’s sometimes needed to cover rent, utility bills, school clothing or food. But lessons held at Bienestar are free, which can transform children’s goals from intangible to within reach.
“When I come into class I feel excited and happy because I get to learn more songs,” Alicia says. “I like violin because it’s really calming and it’s really fun to play.”
Julio Maldonado is a case manager at Bienestar de la Familia. He says the program wouldn’t have been possible without support from his supervisor, Nabil Zaghloul. Now Maldonado spends hours after his usual work schedule to keep practices running smoothly.
Maldonado says it’s not just work: It’s also a labor of love. His eyes tear up when he thinks about what the practices mean to him. He views music as a gift. “Music transforms lives,” he says. “I have seen kids who have never been exposed to music, and now some of them are performing. It’s touching because I didn’t have this chance.”
As time goes by, the students are clearly improving. Gómez, who’s trained to recognize even the subtlest tone of a violin string, says he can hear the changes every time they meet. He attributes their progress to a standard of excellence.
“That excellence can be there regardless of how many months or years they have been learning the instrument,” Gómez says. “The type of excellence we look for is ‘excellence as a choice.’ It’s the way the student approaches their instrument and the way they approach learning in general.”
Even though Alicia has been practicing for just a few weeks, she says she strives for excellence. When she’s at home, she likes to perform for her family. And as she thinks about her future, her grandmother’s memory lives on.
“In the future, I hope I can be in an orchestra,” Alicia says. “I think violin makes me my best self.’’