Music nonprofit provides kids in foster care with lessons that will last a lifetime
For as long as she could remember, Amanda Goenaga had wanted to take music lessons: voice, and piano, and dance. But finances were always tight in the inner city, and so her desire for music lessons, though ever present, shriveled into little more than a pipe dream. That all changed when her Child Protective Services case worker suggested that she look into the central Texas nonprofit, Kids In A New Groove (KING), which provides children in the foster system with free music lessons and mentorship.
At the time, Amanda was 19 and in her first year of college at the University of Texas at Austin studying Radio/Television/Film. “When I heard about the program, I thought, ‘This can’t be real! I’m getting free music lessons and someone is going to come meet me at my house and support me?’” Amanda remembers. “I’d wanted something like this my whole life and couldn’t believe this was an actual thing.”
The KING nonprofit started in 2009 when founder Karyn Scott and her board of directors voted to change the name and the mission of the clothing donation nonprofit Kids in New Digs to a music lessons and mentorship program called Kids In A New Groove. Both nonprofits were geared toward serving youth in foster care, but Karyn and the board believed that KING would do more to positively impact children who had been through trauma.
Today, KING provides free one-on-one music lessons to children in foster care as a means of empowering those children to become successful adults. Through weekly music lessons, children in foster care gain a creative outlet, develop a sense of stability, hone their ability to meet goals, and build a positive relationship with an adult in a committed one-on-one mentoring relationship.
“In the home I grew up in, I was always afraid to mess up because I knew I would get in trouble,” says Amanda, who was taken away from her home in high school to become a ward of the state. “Having that kind of unhealthy mindset made me have a fear of being wrong or doing anything wrong. My voice teacher kind of took that away and made me feel comfortable to practice and for my voice to crack and all the things it takes to become a better singer.”
Through mentorship and weekly voice lessons, Amanda’s voice strengthened. Her voice mentor even taught her a few chords so she could accompany herself on the piano when she warmed up. Soon, Amanda was leading the worship team for her campus ministry and performing at large events, including at the X Games, at KING recitals, and at fundraisers.
Now 22 years old, Amanda has graduated from the University of Texas and phased out of the KING program as a student, but she’s forever grateful to KING for the nurturing support the nonprofit provided throughout her transition from college into the working world.
When KING launched in 2009, music lessons were held at the community center, which presented a variety of challenges for youth in foster care and their guardians, says KING executive director Laura Wood. “For our population, transportation is a huge barrier for kids in foster care because they have so many appointments they have to attend all the time. They have to go to a psychologist, an attorney, see their case workers. We reframed it to where our music teachers are now going to the kids’ homes and making it as easy as possible for the foster parents.”
KING now employs 70 volunteer music mentors who travel to children’s homes to provide free weekly music lessons. Together, the music mentors serve about 150 students each week.
In the event that a child moves to a different living situation, the music mentor is encouraged to follow the student to his or her new placement, if at all possible. “Kids in foster care move an average of six times during their time in foster care, so we try to keep the same teacher and make it work if the student does move to a different home or to a group home,” says Laura.
If a child moves to a home out of KING’s immediate areas of service—Williamson, Travis, and Hays counties—the nonprofit calls around to try to find a suitable music mentor for the student in his or her new area of residence. For that reason, KING also serves a handful of children in Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.
KING provides children in foster care with everything needed to learn their instrument of choice, including a loaner instrument, sheet music, a metronome, tuners, picks, and more. Students can then set goals with their music mentors through KING’s awards program to earn stickers for practicing and showing effort during lessons. After four stickers, students earn a congratulations certificate; more stickers earn the student relationship-building prizes with their music mentor like a paid, one-on-one lunch or dinner out for the two of them, or concert tickets that they can use together. After about six months of stickers, the student earns a brand-new instrument to keep.
“We have several kids who have only a duffle bag or a trash bag full of stuff. And to give them an instrument that is their very own gives them pride. Often at group homes everything is shared, and kids don’t have any possessions that are their own, except for this instrument,” Laura explains. “And to then receive this instrument—something of their own that they’ve worked hard for and they can keep! The instrument provides these kids with a creative outlet, a sense of achievement, and the life lesson that if they work hard for something, there are rewards and benefits. The program really is life-changing on all accounts.”
The statistics speak for themselves: According to the Department of Family Protective Services, only 50% of kids in foster care graduate from high school in Texas, and fewer than 3% go on to attend college. However, over the past three years—2015, 2016, and 2017—100% of KING high school seniors have graduated from high school, and of those kids, 95% have gone on to attend college or technical school or to enlist in the military.
“All of our kids have the potential to be a success story,” says Laura. “That success story is different for each of our kids, but it’s built around building that confidence and giving them that creative outlet that they can use for the rest of their life.”
Because of the rapidly growing foster care population in Georgetown and Round Rock, Williamson County has been identified by KING as an area of great need for music mentors in central Texas, and KING is in talks with Southwestern University about recruiting volunteer music mentors through their music department. For more information about the KING music mentorship program, or to apply to become a music mentor, visit kidsinanewgroove.org.