In Southern California, music pastor Duff Rowden was riding a bike path when he came across an orange orchard full of fruit.
“They were beautiful, big, ripe and ready to eat. I thought I could take a couple, but they weren’t mine, so I left.”
Two weeks later he came back to the garden.
“The fruit lay on the ground, split, flies buzzed around, spoiled and inedible. I thought, “So many kids are like this fruit: ripe, ready and full of potential,” he said, “but because of poor choices or being ignored, they end up broken and ruined. Someone has to come.”
“Then I thought, ‘Someone else won’t do it.’ I had to do it.
“I asked myself: “What do I have that the children want?” Well, I’m a musician and I play the guitar. Many children want to learn how to play. I can do it”.
He made it his mission to bring music to the attention of children by founding the non-profit organization Musical Mentors.org in 2007 in San Juan Capistrano, California. He estimates that more than 1,000 children have been helped to date.
“We bring problem children living in difficult conditions out of themselves. It’s more than just learning how to play music. It’s about character development.
“The skills acquired here are applicable in almost all areas of life. Music requires discipline, perseverance, dedication and the ability to get along with others.”
Rowden won’t let them leave.
“We teach children not to give up and to understand that they can do something difficult. After overcoming this great mental obstacle, the sky becomes the limit.
“They didn’t think they had it. Now they do. This is a wonderful thing. We call it “learning how to play life right”.
Duff Rowden and his wife Bonita teach a 16-week class for beginners, intermediates and advanced children ages 8 to 18. But the key to success, he says, is their young volunteer mentor assistants working alongside them.
“A 16-year-old volunteer mentor has a bigger impact on kids than I do. I am grandfather’s age. The youth expects me to listen to them. But when someone 16 shows genuine attention, that younger child knows it’s unusual.
“They think, ‘He shouldn’t pay attention to me, but he does,’ and that becomes special, a real self-esteem enhancer. Volunteers make what we do shine.”
Volunteer mentors also benefit, he says.
“Most of them have no leadership experience and mentoring is life changing. When younger children look up to them, assistant tutors understand: “I am very important to someone.”
The success story is “Zak” who came to Musical Mentors doubting himself.
“Zack loved being fired,” Duff Rowden said. “If it was difficult, he wouldn’t have done it. The tutors made him learn one musical bar at a time, showing him how to do it until he learned a whole song.“We call this process “go slow and learn fast.”
“You know that babies fall all the time when they are learning to walk, but they don’t stop. Children don’t know how to quit smoking. They learn to throw.
“I say to kids like Zack, ‘Can you do what a kid can do?’ They say, “Of course we can,” and they have a new perspective.”
Zak realized that he could do something difficult and get a reward. He completed all levels in Musical Mentors and graduated with honors.
“His confidence skyrocketed,” Duff Rowden said. “He tried more difficult things in life and made it. He took up videography and became proficient.”
Zak eventually became a California Park Service ranger assigned to Doheny Beach State Park and decided to make instructional videos for the park ranger school.
“Many kids never learned to overcome something difficult,” said Bonita Rowden.
“They need to find support to overcome. Music is something special that they can immerse themselves in and be part of something good. They develop skills that not everyone has, so learning makes them special and opens doors. It prepares them for life.”