After Tuesday’s dismissal at Lake Stevens Middle School in Miami Gardens, a group of 10 students walked into a classroom laughing and talking over each other. One of them approached an instructor to tell her about a conference in Washington, D.C. she may attend, another lingered in a corner playing “505” by the Arctic Monkeys on the guitar and someone else practiced drum beats on a desk.
The rest of the group moved chairs and desks to prepare for a 13-minute musical set of reggae, rock and rap they were going to run through. But before they picked up their instruments, they sat in a circle and the mentors asked about their day and weekend. One boy said he had his snack stolen in a class and a girl commented that her grandmother had become angry at her for failing to clean the air-fryer.
That was a typical start to a meeting of Guitars Over Guns, a non-profit organization founded in Miami that partners with schools to provide music and arts education for at-risk youth.
GOGO was founded in Miami in 2008 by Dr. Chad Bernstein. Its mission is to offer music education as a means of guided self-discovery by partnering with elementary, middle and high schools in under-resourced communities. What started as an informal mentoring project grew into a national organization serving over 8,000 students nationwide. It even garnered support from former President Barack Obama, who surprised some Chicago students when he visited their South Side studio in early May.
“It’s about self-empowerment. It’s about youth empowerment. It’s about building community and really making substantial connections,” said Michelle Donnelly, a mentor at Lake Stevens. “[It’s about] knowing that there are other people that care about you, knowing that you don’t have to sell drugs or be violent.”
Ninety-six percent of the students at GOGO live at or below the federal poverty line, 46 percent identify as Hispanic or Latin and 44 percent identify as Black or African American.
In South Florida, it collaborates with schools in six cities, including Miami Gardens, North Miami and Little Havana. It’s completely free of cost and provides instruments and other materials through funds they receive from partnered organizations and donated instruments.
But GOGO isn’t just about teaching kids how to keep a rhythm or when to come in on a song. It prioritizes “social emotional learning” in its curriculum, a schooling method that cultivates skills like empathy, teamwork, responsibility and decision-making, to keep kids safe mentally and physically. In a new program initiative, mentors have been getting certified in mental health first aid so they can better respond to students’ needs and concerns.
Donnelly, who goes by Marley Jane and MJ both at GOGO and musically, said that without GOGO, some students might lack support to deal with the issues they face in their academics, home life, friendships, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The relationships that I have with the kids are so meaningful both to me and them,” said Donnelly. “The best part is building on those relationships with the kids and then seeing their passionate creativity come to life in such a meaningful way.”
Using the music and the social emotional learning skills allows mentors to be “eye to eye” with students and “give them the space to be themselves,” said Donnelly, so they can show kids that someone is looking out for them.
Some GOGO students graduate from mentees to mentors when they finish school.
When Caleb Alcime was around 14 years old, he made the decision to be a musician when he grew up. He spent two weeks attending drum lessons before he had to stop going because his mom couldn’t afford them.
In his sophomore year of high school, Alcime noticed that one of his friends was learning to play various instruments, so he asked where he was getting lessons. He told Alcime about Guitars Over Guns in North Miami Middle School, and a week later, he snuck in with his buddy to one of the drumming rooms.
He said his mentors not only taught him craft but also how to be a decent human being.
“If you’re a cool musician and you know how to kick it with people, [then] the gigs get easier, they get more fun. I learned that from them,” said Alcime. “And so I apply it not just in the musician world, but in every aspect that I got going on in my life.”
Now at 24 years old, Alcime has experience being a mentor and a programs associate, his current role at the organization, and plays drums in the group Unistiq, GOGO’s alumni band. He has played the national anthem at the Kaseya Center with the group, then the American Airlines Arena, to open for the Miami Heat. Unistiq has also performed twice at TEDxCoconut Grove, an independent TED event.
“Through it all, [kids] want to learn something from you,” said Alcime. “And that’s an honor to me. The kids have so much high regard for you and stuff like that, and you become a role model for them…It’s just an honor.”
On May 24, Lake Stevens hosted their end-of-the-year showcase in which the GOGO students will perform. Tuesday’s session was one of the last rehearsals before then. Their set includes Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and “Cool Kids,” an original by the young musicians of GOGO at Lake Stevens.
Vocalist Richard Jeancalude, 12, said that he’s excited about the upcoming concert because “you’re surrounded by people with positive energy, so we get inspired and stuff. Inspiration to keep going, keep pushing.”
To learn more about Guitars Over Guns, visit https://www.guitarsoverguns.org/