Gifford Youth Orchestra exemplifies the magic of music

Members of the Gifford Youth Orchestra. [Photo: Kaila Jones]

Keeping children “off the street and on the stage” is the mission of the Gifford Youth Orchestra, a nonprofit that provides education, experiences and training in cultural and performing arts. Founded in 2003 by Rev. Crystal Bujol, the organization’s core curriculum is teaching children how to play the violin, cello and piano, as well as vocal training. There is also a Senior Citizens Violin Class.

After relocating to Vero Beach from Los Angeles, Bujol jumped into action when she discovered that there were few opportunities for children in Gifford to learn how to play an instrument.

Bujol says her friend Annie Powell asked her, “Our kids are being left behind. What are you going to do about it?”

She recruited Joan Haar to teach and enticed donors to contribute so they could purchase instruments. In very little time they had 15 students and the Gifford Youth Orchestra was off and running. Through 2019, 221 children have brightened their tomorrows by learning not only how to play instruments, but also communicative skills, study habits and life lessons, creating pathways to higher education and career options.

What started as a grassroots effort by dedicated teachers, generous donors and committed board members to give talented, low-income children better opportunities has become a full-fledged string orchestra worthy of performing in public arenas.

Children can take violin lessons for just $10 month, which includes instruments, instruction and uniforms.

“It costs about $2,000 a year per student for all the expenses,” says Bujol. “We keep the fee at only $120 a year so it doesn’t cause and hardship for the family. The rest of money is raised through donations and contributions generated from performances.”

Students are encouraged to earn money while continuing their music education, with high school students at a certain level of expertise paid to be tutors. Donations paid to GYO for public performances are split between the organization and the performers as a reward for their hard work. And when performances are given pro-bono, the students learn a lesson about giving back to the community; it also counts as community service hours required for high school graduation and college applications.

“If a child’s parent drove them to the performance and they earned money from it, we require that they give the parent a dollar for the transportation,” says Bujol. “Most parents balk at the idea at first, but once we explain that it’s a lesson on how it costs money to make money, they agree. We also encourage the kids to give a dollar to whatever church they attend, as a sort of spiritual food. These lessons transcend the musical scores they’ve mastered.”

Perhaps most important of all is the poise, etiquette and people skills the students learn through interactions with audiences, who are encouraged to ask the children questions after each performance. Inevitably the students rise to the challenge with articulate responses, handshakes and impeccable manners, gaining confidence with each encounter and elevating their overall self-esteem.

They are also introduced to experiences outside their normal realms, such as a recent trip by violinists Mieca Eeja Ferguson (13) and Jada Powell (15) to Las Vegas to perform with the legendary Woody Woods Orchestra in an exchange program designed to showcase talent. True to GYO’s motto “Each One-Teach One,” they will be passing on what they learned to other students in the program.

Academically, Bujol says, 80 percent of students who stay with the orchestra for three or more years will or have graduated from high school, 65 percent who remain beyond four years go on to college and 100 percent who stay with the program through high school have graduated and enrolled in college.

“Our students have gone on to be teachers, directors, actors, dancers and soloists around the county,” says Bujol. “Their successes have a ripple effect back home in Gifford, both for the students and the donors. Students are inspired to follow their dreams and donors made it happen.”

She cites as an example Marissa Rollins, a recent USF graduate who now teaches violin to all grade school children at Lincoln Elementary in Plant City, Fla.

“She was a member of GYO since 2007 and the donor dollars invested in her education in Gifford now bless hundreds of children on the other side of the state,” says Bujol.

“Our program aspires to equip our children with the bridges to build a better tomorrow. One day I’d love to see it expand to have our own Cultural and Performance Art Center in Gifford, with state-of-the-art classrooms and inspiring teachers. We want our students to go into the world prepared to be solid citizens, enjoying their productive lives and creating more cultural opportunities for Gifford in the future.”

The public is invited to see the students perform during the Gifford Youth Orchestra’s 17th Anniversary Celestial Celebration, March 7 at the Heritage Center. Tickets are $50 or $400 for a table of 10. All donations directly support GYO.

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