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New music program to help needy kids in Durham

Posted September 15, 2010

A new Durham group is working to bring classical music to kids in poor neighborhoods.

KidZNotes is based on the wildly successful program called El Sistema in Venezuela. The group has been featured on 60 Minutes twice and reaches 400,000 Venezuelan children who mostly live below the poverty line. It uses music to help keep kids off the streets and give them self confidence, discipline and other practical life skills. At the same time, it has built a network of symphonies across the country. Graduates of the program are more likely to lead productive lives following life-long career paths.

The original 60 Minutes piece inspired two local women - Kathie Morrison and Lucia Powe - to start something similar here several years ago. The two met at the Duke Center for Lifelong Learning in a writing class, started talking and realized that they both had a passion for music and early childhood development, said Katie Wyatt, who is KidZNotes founding executive director.

The two started building the foundation and board and seeking community partners. When they called El Sistema's program in the United States looking for somebody to lead the group locally, they learned there was somebody qualified right here in the Triangle.

Wyatt, the former education director for the N.C. Symphony, spent last year as an Abreu Fellow, a program that was inspired by the creator of El Sistema of Venezuela and is the model for KidZNotes. She spent time in Boston and Venezuela training and jumped at the chance to return to the Triangle.

Wyatt said she had spent time in Venezuela as a violist several years ago and had been impressed by her fellow musicians who had trained with El Sistema.

"When I was 25, they were the same level as me at 19 or 20 years old," she said.

KidZNotes is launching a three-year pilot project in East Durham. This year, the group is working with 60 total preschoolers and kindergartners, along with some third graders, who will act as mentors. The students attend Eastway, Y.E. Smith, and E.K. Powe elementary schools in East Durham. Census data from 2000 put the general area’s median per capita income at $11,184, which is 50 percent of the citywide average, according to KidZNotes.

The kids will start with the violin and meet four times a week at their schools. On Saturdays, they come together at the Holton Career and Resource Center. There will be opportunities for field trips and chances to meet with local professional musicians.

Wyatt wondered if enough kids would sign up for the program, but there already is a waiting list.

"It's amazing," Wyatt said.

Music can play a key role in a child's social, emotional and intellectual development. It requires complete focus and attention, working as a team and also improvement as an individual.

"We are a social program that uses music as a vehicle for positive change," Wyatt said.

The group will launch this Saturday with an event at the Holton center. The kids will all receive their violins thanks to Duke University, one of several contributors and partners. The 1 p.m. event at the Holton Career and Resource Center, 401 N. Driver St, in Durham is open to the public.

Wyatt said the group hopes to eventually be in all North Carolina schools in areas with significant poverty.

"Beyond the first year, we are looking for schools and communities in Durham and beyond who are interested," she said.

To learn more about the program and how you can help or volunteer, check KidZNotes website.

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