This story is part of an occasional series about individuals who don’t have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.
Saginaw, Mich., is one of those places where economic recovery has been slow to arrive. The city has been hit hard over the years by factory shutdowns. Unemployment is high. And people have left, by the thousands.
Now, residents John and Katrina Vowell are trying to help turn things around — with music.
The couple says they love Saginaw, despite its many problems, which include high poverty, drugs and drive-by shootings.
The city doesn’t look that bad — there are tidy, modest homes, small fenced-in yards and some new restaurants and luxury apartments.
But there are also plenty of boarded-up buildings and empty lots, where abandoned houses have been torn down to reduce blight.
“This was a car town,” says John, as he drives around the city. “This was GM, and everything and all the companies that built parts for GM, and it’s all pretty much gone.”
But he and his wife have stayed. They both grew up around here. John is 56, with a thick sweep of gray hair. Katrina is 49, with short dark hair and bright eyes.
As they drive past a long line of cars outside a funeral home, Katrina wonders if the funeral might be for Laquavis Cooper, a teen shot at a local park a few days earlier.
“He had just gone to Chicago, and was back visiting his aunt and got killed,” she says.
Such incidents have raised concerns about the fate of the city’s youth. The Vowells say people are trying to improve life in Saginaw, but there isn’t much for kids to do in their spare time.
So when the Vowells were trying to turn their own lives around a few years ago, they decided to start a program called Major Chords for Minors. It provides free private music lessons — and instruments — to kids who can’t afford them. That’s a lot of people in Saginaw, where the poverty rate is more than 37 percent.
Major Chords for Minors has almost 130 students so far, and a long wait list.
Still, it’s a shoestring operation. The Vowells started the program using their meager savings and help from friends. Now they rely on grants and donations. Instructors, who teach drum, guitar and piano, get paid only $10 a lesson.
Classes are held in an old public elementary school, which was shut down for years due to lack of enrollment.
Today, students come to Major Chords just to hang out, playing board games or practicing instruments. It’s a second home for some, like 19-year-old Emilio Saenz, who learned to play the Spanish guitar here.
Saenz explains that his mother left the family when he was young. He describes his father as “kind of neglectful,” and says the Vowells are like surrogate parents.
“There’ve been lots of times, if it wasn’t for them, I probably would have gone home hungry, not eating for whatever period of time,” he says.
The Vowells say they know what it’s like to find refuge in music, especially for young people.
“I was a loner. I felt nobody liked me. I could get lost in my music,” says Katrina, who plays the piano.
John says as a child he would listen to record albums over and over when he was holed up in his bedroom, trying to block out an alcoholic father.
“When he drank, he turned into a monster,” says John, “and I said I’ll never be like that. Well, I turned out to be exactly like my father. ”
And that’s another part of this story. The Vowells are both recovering alcoholics.
They used to work in real estate, and Katrina says watching so many homes they sold being foreclosed upon got pretty depressing. At one point, the Vowells say, they hit rock bottom and lost almost everything they had.
Major Chords for Minors is a big part of their recovery.
On a recent evening, everyone at Major Chords was preparing for their first full-fledged parent’s meeting. Thirteen-year-old Tanzania Cantrell was nervously rehearsing a song she was scheduled to perform. She wrote the song, called “Help Me Out” when she was only 9 years old, and says she’s been coming to Major Chords for free lessons ever since.
“Because we don’t have much money,” she explains. Cantrell says she loves coming to Major Chords because music calms her when life gets tough.
“At school I get bullied a whole lot. Yeah, ever since I was, like I said, kindergarten,” she says.
But practicing up on stage, Cantrell seems transformed — hardly a pushover — as she belts out her song.
Later that evening, John and Katrina greet and hug the parents as they gather in the auditorium. It’s like a big family.
But as in many families, John needs to have a tough talk. He tells the parents that they need to make sure their kids get to lessons on time, and practice their instruments.
He says everyone has to be on board if they’re going to teach these children that responsibility and hard work pay off.