Months ago, like many Americans, I watched the news broadcasts of the desperate people seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans Super Dome. As days passed and their plight grew more desperate so did their cries for help. I watched as a small boy articulately exclaimed, “This is a pitiful situation. We need some help down here!” Indeed, these people who had lost everything were now struggling to survive for days without food, water, and medical supplies. Like many I wondered how this could be happening in our country? People were needlessly dying in front of our eyes…in front of our children’s eyes. I worried about the traumatic effect it was having on these kids, which they would carry into their lives in the aftermath.
I am a professional Blues musician and the director of Harmonikids, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides music therapy to special needs children by giving them new harmonicas and music lessons in entertaining sessions. Earlier this year I had effectively taken 1000 harmonicas to traumatized children in orphanages and refugee camps of the most devastated areas of the Tsunami in North Sumatra. Naturally I wanted to bring the same kind of unique relief to these American kids in Katrina’s aftermath. Specifically I wanted to reach those who had been traumatized and evacuated from New Orleans, a city which has given the world so much wonderful music. A perfect fit, I thought, but it turned out to be a task easier said than done.
Both FEMA and the Red Cross seemed to be overwhelmed by this unprecedented disaster. Several weeks of daily contacts to the Red Cross produced no effective leads. Even the director of the Disaster Mental Health Services in Washington, D.C. though enthusiastic about Harmonikids, was unable to effectively connect me with a shelter. Frustrated but unwilling to give up, I persisted. Months later, assistance finally came as a result of an email I sent to Dennis Schaibly, Blues DJ for public radio station WWOZ in New Orleans. I’d met Dennis earlier this year as a finalist at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. WWOZ had been rendered inoperable by Katrina and was relaying its signal from Baton Rouge. Dennis replied to my email, saying that he knew a place where the New Orleans evacuees had been taken and wrote simply “I will find what you need.” True to his word, Dennis connected me with Renaissance Village, a FEMA facility for evacuees administered by the Louisiana Recovery Corps. They graciously and quickly accepted my application to provide aid through Harmonikids. Hohner, Inc. generously donated the harmonicas, and a date was set for December 11th.
Dennis picked me up at the Baton Rouge Airport on Saturday and we drove directly to the facility. Renaissance Village is a former cow pasture on the outskirts of Baker, Louisiana where 573 trailers are spread across 62 acres. The modest trailers provide families’ one bedroom, bunk beds off the kitchen and a cramped bathroom. Residents receive three meals a day, free laundry facilities and daily bus service to New Orleans. I noticed a large tent structure near the guard-gated entrance, which was being prepared for a Gospel Concert. Beyond it the white travel-trailers are lined in rows along dirt roads and maintained in a tidy manner. Draped along the entire front entrance fence is a colorful, hand-painted banner thanking the world for “support, prayers, and gifts” from the “survivors, great Americans, and history-makers.”
The front gate guards directed us to the “Welcome Tent” a 50-foot open-ended square tent where the Harmonikids sessions would be held. Directly next to it, a long line of families had formed long line around much larger tent. There was a festive atmosphere in the air… with good reason. The U.S. Marines were conducting a Toys-For-Tots Christmas event. Toys and new bicycles were being passed out to the kids who were happily playing in the area. An arts and crafts program was in session. A disc jockey had set up a sound system and was loudly playing holiday music. And, of course, Santa Claus was about to make his appearance. The Village directors apologetically explained that the kids were very distracted and it would most likely be difficult to engage their attention with mere harmonicas. Indeed, there was tremendous amount of activity. However, I did not view any of it “competition” with Harmonikids. I was happy to see the children receiving so much attention and gifts. Moreover, I had brought them the unique gift of creating music, which they would be able to carry into their future long after the Katrina Relief Aid stopped arriving. Besides, a happy atmosphere makes for a good learning environment, and I knew from experience that when children hear music on harmonicas they cannot resist participating.
To assist the session, accomplished local Bluesman “Big Daddy O” showed up with his guitar and sound system. We had performed together the night before at a Baton Rouge nightspot to an appreciative dancing crowd. Here at the Village we performed a lively Blues set for the families who had gathered in the area and before long; young children wandered in and began dancing to the music. I asked the kids if they knew this kind of music and they replied with enthusiastic familiarity, “Yeah, that’s the Blues!”. No surprise, I thought, after all they’re from New Orleans. Having caught their curiosity and attention I passed out harmonicas and music sheets and began the Harmonikids sessions.
I began the session with some rousing solo harmonica playing and theatrics in which I created the illusion of playing a song out of my ear. The giggling kids then proceeded to learn the familiar “Shave And a Haircut” jingle with lightning speed. I moved on to the old favorite “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and saw the self-confidence beaming in the children’s faces when they realized they were making music for the first time. I finished the lessons with the Louisiana state song, “You Are My Sunshine”. The kids overflowed with pride and joy as they played it. Many of them individually came up to me to eagerly show me their new talent. One boy left the tent and came back later overjoyed to show me that he had taught himself a version of “Jingle Bells”. Other kids had come with him eager to learn to play as well. Even when Santa Claus made an unexpected entrance into the tent the kids all but ignored him; maintaining their focus on the harmonicas…the ultimate testimony to the power of music!
Giving children harmonicas and music is often like planting a seed. You don’t always see the end result. It continues to grow and blossom in their lives. It provides hope in difficult times. For the kids at Renaissance Village the effect was immediate. The look of sheer excitement on their faces as they recognized the music and learned the songs is their unforgettable gift to me. Further, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to bring the healing gift of music to young souls who had bravely endured so much hardship in New Orleans, the beloved birthplace of so much American music.