Methuen High School junior Julio Gomez was in the second grade at the Community Day Charter Public School in Lawrence when his art teacher, Marcia Lier, noticed him squirming in his chair and tapping on everything in sight. Rather than send him to the principal's office, she asked if he wanted to take violin lessons.
Although he was initially reluctant to give up recess so he could play the violin without missing class, Julio became one of the first three members of Community Strings of Lawrence, a program offering free violin lessons and performance opportunities. As the number of violin students grew, the Northshore Youth Symphony Orchestra, based in Topsfield, adopted it as an outreach program.
The orchestra now funds Community Strings of Lawrence, which has grown to support more than 75 children in grades 2 through 8 from the Community Day Charter Public School (including a latchkey program and early-learning center) and Esperanza Academy for Girls in Lawrence. Violin students receive instruction during and after school, on Saturdays, and over the summer.
"The violin is a hard instrument, so I feel like I'm accomplishing something when I play," said Julio, who has remained in the program as a volunteer mentor for younger students. "It's cool to help the other kids because I can show them what I know, and someday they can be better than I am. I like feeling like I'm a role model for them."
Lawrence resident Audris Terrero, an eighth-grader at the Community Day Charter Public School, said she was excited when she was accepted into Community Strings of Lawrence six years ago.
"I wanted to challenge myself to learn an instrument, and something was calling me to the violin," said Audris, who previously played the piano for a brief time. "Eighth grade isn't easy because you get a lot of work, but the violin is a good stress reliever. You can relax and listen to classical music, or play another type of song, depending on your mood. It makes me feel great."
According to Trudy Larson - the Northshore Youth Symphony Orchestra's executive director and a violin teacher in North Andover who assisted Lier in establishing Community Strings of Lawrence in 1998 - many of the violin students come from economically disadvantaged, single-parent homes without resources to broaden their world. When students learn to play the violin, she said, they begin to believe they can achieve other goals in life.
"It has been so exciting to see the program in Lawrence grow," said Larson, noting that instrumental instruction has been shown to improve children's ability to learn, read, and remember, while developing life skills such as discipline and responsibility. "We see the results in their school work, and we hear it from their teachers and parents."
Lier, who traded teaching art nine years ago to become director of Community Strings of Lawrence, agrees the program can be "life changing."
"Kids aren't in gangs because they're bad, mean kids. They're in gangs because they lack a sense of identity and belonging," she said. "A lot of the kids in our program have difficult home lives, but [playing the violin] builds such self-confidence, such pride. I've seen some big-time attitudes fall by the wayside."
As a gesture of appreciation to the businesses and individuals who help support the orchestra and Community Strings of Lawrence, Larson said, students participate in "Youth Serving Through Music" outreach concerts at local hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. The ensembles also perform free concerts for the public several times a year.
Meghan O'Keefe, aWakefield High School sophomore who joined the orchestra in 2002, said mentoring younger Lawrence students whom she now considers friends has been an eye-opening experience. While she has enjoyed private violin lessons and summer camps, she knows some of her peers are not as fortunate. Two years ago, she said, she and her mother bought clothes and toys so two sisters in the Community Strings of Lawrence program could enjoy Christmas presents.
The students' joy in participating in the program, she said, is contagious.
"A month or two ago, I went to a concert at the charter school, and all I could think about was how excited the kids were and how happy the parents looked," she said. "I just kept thinking how great it is that we can all be part of this."
Community Strings of Lawrence will perform a free concert at 5 p.m. Sunday at Grace Episcopal Church, 35 Jackson St. in Lawrence.
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.