I believe in the healing power of music, and I also believe it is our responsibility to care for “the least of these.” Maria Corley, one of my fellow AKA authors, asked for help in raising awareness about a new organization that combines the two. How could I say anything but yes.
Children of incarcerated parents have a 72% chance of being incarcerated themselves. One in twenty-eight children in America falls into this category. While Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and other charitable organizations are actively involved in serving children with imprisoned parents, there is only one charity in the country specifically devoted to breaking the cycle. Even more shocking: SWAN (Scaling Walls A Note at a Time) has only existed since December of 2011.
Diana Vuolo didn’t plan to found a nonprofit. A professional violinist who studied with renowned string pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, Diana set aside her career when she married and started a family. She continued to use her musical gifts , however, by giving lessons and performing ensemble concerts, with her students and professional musicians, in nursing homes. She hoped to inspire young people by example.
Diana’s husband is a pastor whose ministry includes working with convicted sex offenders. In dealing with this population, he soon became aware of the collateral damage done to their families. Diana learned firsthand that music could heal some of that damage when she learned that one of her violin students, who was being sexually and physically abused by her father, was using her music lessons and involvement in one of Diana’s ensembles as a lifeline . Later, her interaction with another student, whose father was in prison for a sex offense, led Diana Vuolo to make the power of music available to more than the few young lives she had been able to touch on her own.
Diana had no business training outside of running a private violin studio, but she knew that the only way to accomplish her goal was to start a non-profit corporation, so she started surrounding herself with people who had the expertise she lacked. She also started recruiting like-minded fellow musicians who were willing to perform for fundraisers, after sharing the stage with the young people Diana is trying to reach. The program is in its infancy, but has some influential supporters, including Burl Cain, a committed Christian who is the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison. Mr. Cain transformed one of the most notorious institutions in the country by demonstrating and demanding a level of respect between the prisoners and the guards that became infectious. He understands that programs like SWAN help families in several ways: It re-directs children’s tendencies towards crime to more positive activities and encourages inmates to know that the negative effects of their choices are somewhat offset by the benefits coming to their children. This intervention also positively impacts the offender’s re-entry in that he or she experiences the support of others working for the good of his or her family.
SWAN’s mission is “to enrich the lives of children of incarcerated individuals through private music lessons, ensemble training, participation in community performances and varied mentorship.” Music is a powerful weapon. According to the SWAN website, “students involved in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs when compared against students in other school activities.” Studying music leads to higher grades, better performance on tests, and higher rates of school attendance. (For more information about the impact of music lessons, please click the “Smart Facts about Music” link on the SWAN website). Moreover, students who perform in ensembles learn about teamwork, and absorb the positive identity a musical ensemble creates. Performing in the community also instills a sense of service.
It’s important, when giving to a charity, to know what the money will be used for. Some of it will be used to pay for the staff that will allow Diana to work 40-50 hour weeks, instead of the current 60-70. Most of it goes towards programs like the ones described earlier, and additional projects like the inaugural choral and hand –percussion workshops. These workshops are planned for the Gap and Lancaster area. Choirs are cost-effective, because everyone already has an instrument. As SWAN expands, however, Diana hopes to provide instruments to needy students through corporate sponsorship. SWAN’s mission involves using music to minister, but it also includes ministering to musicians; it’s no secret that despite music’s omnipresence in our lives, making music is rarely lucrative. Diana’s dream is to hire a core of musicians full-time, giving them the steady income and health benefits that are often elusive.
If SWAN spreads throughout the country (and the world), crime rates will fall as children begin to see their lives as too valuable to be wasted behind bars, and society’s criminal tendency to devalue the arts could be alleviated, at least a little. It’s a simple, achievable solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem. And for those interested in the bottom line, paying for a child’s music lessons through the SWAN program costs $1,333/year, while locking that child up, should he or she be one of the 72% mentioned earlier, costs $88,000 annually. So contributing to SWAN is a fiscally responsible way to create a brighter future for everyone.
Juilliard-trained pianist Maria Thompson Corley (DMA) has appeared on radio, television, and concert stages in Canada, the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Europe. Her recordings include Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes, a collaboration with tenor Darryl Taylor on the Naxos label; Twelve Etudes for Solo Piano, with music by Leslie Adams, and Soulscapes, a recording of solo piano music by African American women, on Albany; and Of the Father’s Love Begotten, a collection of Christmas music. She is an arranger of music for both solo voice and choir: her arrangement of “Mary had a Baby” (SSA) was recently added to the Walton catalog, and a solo arrangement of “Steal Away” was recorded by Darryl Taylor for his Albany release, A Charm of Spirituals, A regular contributor to Broad Street Review, her novel, Choices, was published by Kensington. First and foremost, she is a committed Christian and the mother of two teenagers.