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South Salt Lake Journal

The music, the moment—how a South Salt Lake team transforms the lives of refugee children

Mar 09, 2023 10:49AM ● By Jesse M. Gonzalez

A young student learns how to play the harmonica under instruction from the team of Peace Through Music International. (Photo courtesy of Monica Clay/Peace Through Music International)

Music is the artistic combination of sounds to produce feelings of harmony and balance, and this is evident in the Granite School District’s program Peace Through Music International. The program revolves around the musical bond between high schoolers and elementary students, helping many refugee children find positive emotional expression after a burdening time.

The program started with Liz Shropshire who wanted to help the refugees of Kosovo who had been displaced from their home during the war in 1999. Shropshire, a music composer and teacher, had flown there to create new ways of assistance and there the light bulb came on. She would bring a music program to see if it would work with the kids and it came with astounding success.  

“The kids would pack into these little rooms or shelters to get any instruction they could,” said Monica Clay, who has been a volunteer for the foundation, helping Shropshire nearly every step of the way. “She (Shropshire) developed a program using a self-sustaining model where the teenagers ended up teaching the classes and they were able to teach hundreds and hundreds of kids at these IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps and different places throughout Kosovo.”

From that trip to Kosovo, and the incredible coalescence that it gave to the less fortunate, the Shropshire Music Foundation was born, which eventually expanded into different countries such as Uganda, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Greece and Ukraine.

In 2022, Shropshire Music Foundation changed its name to Peace Through Music International, but the humanitarian ideas revolving around the mission remain the same.

“We bring music to children affected by war and have seen it transform lives—it gives them self-esteem, motivation for the future, which is very difficult in refugee camps,” Clay said.  “There's a lot of hopelessness and apathy and boredom, and so this brings new life and it brings leadership opportunities and creativity and joy, and ultimately peace.”

Aside from the face-to-face learning platform, Peace Through Music International has started projecting their mellifluous message via online ukulele instruction. Other musical instruments that are taught in the program include the penny whistle and harmonica.  

“We try to do simple instruments that can be carried around and that can withstand some harsh conditions and are easy for the kids to pick up on so that's typically what we stick to. We teach music notes and beats and rests and songs,” Clay said. “We serve anyone in need of the South Salt Lake program, we serve kids that are part of the Historic Scott School after-school program.”

A key proponent of the program is Rocky Mountain Power, an electrical company that assists the foundation through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) grants and other education grants. Peace Through Music International applied for and received a grant in 2021 and another one in 2022.

“The grant program is really impactful, and we're really excited to support it because I think organizations like Peace Through Music International do a lot of important work to build up our community,” said Brandon Zero, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power. “A youth centered music education program really fits the bill. We have given out about $60 million to nonprofit organizations in our service area. The mission is really just to support the growth and vitality of our communities and organizations that are doing that great work.”

The music program would not be possible without the diligent efforts of the high school students, who undergo 40 hours of training before they begin teaching music at the Historic Scott School, a community center which houses various after-school activities. One such student, Megan Tandar, helps lead the program with her sister, whether it’s teaching musical notes or training new volunteers.

“It's definitely a lot different—I’m a classical pianist and a lot of my training has been drilling one passage over and over until you get it right, but when you're with these kids that's not what our focus of music is. Our focus of music is that it should be fun, it should be something passionate, something to connect people,” said Tandar, who teaches approximately 20 kids, though it varies from week to week.

“I love how when we first started the Salt Lake chapter, we did an intense volunteer training to train Megan and the other volunteers to teach and they're all teenagers,” said Alisa Broadbent, a Utah volunteer coordinator who has worked alongside Shropshire working with the refugee and immigrant population. “It's such a great setup for our foundation to have the teenagers come in and teach the kids. When we were going through the training I remember Liz saying, ‘Remember that our goal is not to create musicians. Our goal is to create more peace in their lives.’”

“Over the last three or four years I've really learned that the thing that teaches the kids the most is when there's a personal connection and when these kids can really sense that the teachers love being with them,” Broadbent said.  

“Just last week, one of the kids said to me as we were leaving, ‘I love this class!’ Oh golly, oh good, great! She said, ‘Because I get to see all of you.’ And that just really affirmed to me that the music is just the medium and once we can help these kids—you know, they're sponges, they are learning and they're growing and they have hard things in their lives, but if they learn these skills early through music, through interpersonal connection, they will be so much more able to give back to their world, to their community so I just really, really believe in this organization and what we’re doing,” Broadbent said.

“I'm thinking especially, because I worked with her today, of a girl named Cordelia. She is a hard little girl but she was in my group, and I can tell she's learning other skills from other places in her life but she has done pretty good,” Broadbent said. “She enjoys music but at first her emotions were unchecked. She didn't have the ability to focus or to concentrate or to follow simple directions, and now a year later she's doing really, really well. I'm really proud of her that she's developed some really good skills that are helping her personally.”

The mission to transform lives continues through Peace Through Music International.  The team behind the program are more than willing to help some of the world’s most vulnerable younger citizens.  

“That’s our goal,” Clay said. “Everybody benefits. People that are in a terrible place are more vulnerable to human trafficking and extremist groups and hate. If you can change that at the beginning, I mean, you've changed the world. You've improved their lives, but you've also improved the community.”

“I'd like people to know Peace Through Music International is a foundation that really focuses not necessarily on creating musicians but using music as a catalyst for peace and for healing from trauma,” Tandar said. “That's our biggest mission.”