LIANE HANSEN, host:
To this day, Birmingham, Alabama continues to deal with its brutal civil rights history. One of the many programs in the city that seek to heal lingering wounds by crossing racial and economic barriers is called Scrollworks. There, children are offered music lessons and instruments to practice on free of charge. And the woman behind it has made it her life's work.
Al Letson is the host of NPR's and PRX's program, State of the Re:Union. The show broadcasts stories of communities - what pulls them apart and brings them together. He traveled to Birmingham to observe how Scrollworks works.
AL LETSON: The sounds emanating from the classrooms at the Highlands United Methodist Baptist Church in Birmingham run the gamut from sweet...
(Soundbite of music)
LETSON: ...to, well, not so sweet.
(Soundbite of music)
LETSON: Throughout the day, over 120 kids, some traveling more than an hour to get here, will walk through the halls of the church, many of them holding instruments you'd find in the orchestra. And they're here to get free music lessons.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. CINDY ORCHET (Instructor): Put your thumb around the neck. There you go. Very close but don't block your strings. Now, hold your violin up straight.
LETSON: A room full of kids of various ages look up at the instructor, Cindy Orchet. Among the kids is eight-year-old Mandy Dickerson. It's her first day and her parents Theresa and James are looking on with expectation. For them, music lessons would not be possible without Scrollworks.
Ms. THERESA JAMES: Yeah it's pretty expensive, we wouldn't be able to afford it, you know, because she's in school and different things that we are already paying for.
LETSON: The program includes children from ages eight to 19 years old. And not only does it help these kids to play music but it also tries to inspire them by taking them to see and hear classical performances. Theresa James says her daughter got to watch renowned violinist Joshua Bell this week.
Ms. JAMES: I mean, obviously, she really was inspired by that. And we got to go 'cause we wouldn't have been able to afford those tickets. And so it's opportunities that we're getting that we certainly would never have been allowed.
LETSON: Sam Herman is the drum instructor at Scrollworks. He also gives lessons to kids in a well-to-do suburb. He says the children he teaches there, kids with more resources, see their music lessons as just another activity.
Mr. SAM HERMAN (Drum Instructor, Scrollworks): The kids here tend to be much more interested in actually learning something that they're not exposed to all the time. And even outside of being here it gives them something to go home and work on getting better at. And I think that that excites a lot of them.
GIRL: We are going to play a Taylor Swift song because I love Taylor Swift. She's like awesome.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. CHRISTY TUCKER: My name is Christy Tucker and I have twin girls, Heather and Hope Tucker, and this is their third year to play with Scrollworks. And they have enjoyed it immensely and so have I. I always have lots of entertainment at home now. It really has helped them with their school work and pretty much all around. You know, 12 is the moody age for little girls and if they're sad, happy, glad, whatever, music seems to help them with whatever they're facing, whatever they're dealing with in life. That soothes whatever it is.
(Soundbite of girl singing song)
LETSON: Wow. That was really good.
LETSON: Not all parents at Scrollworks are low-income. Christy Tucker is middle class but she says her family would have to eat soup every meal if she had to pay for lessons for both of her girls. She thanks Scrollworks founder Jeane Goforth as the person who has made this possible for all the kids here.
Ms. TUCKER: She's done a miraculous job. There are so many children who would probably be doing things they shouldn't be doing, but instead they're here learning music. So, she's done a great thing. She really has.
(Soundbite to tapping)
LETSON: Bruno, a stocky pit bull, is wagging his sturdy tail against the side of a cage in Jeane Goforth's house. Like many of the pets in her menagerie, Bruno's a rescue. To me, these animals say a lot about Jeane. You see, it's in her DNA. She can't help but to help.
If you saw Jeane on the street, nothing really stands out. She dresses plainly, looks like an average America. She isn't wealthy, doesn't have a trust fund, and yet she's taken her entire retirement savings and poured it into Scrollworks.
Ms. JEANE GOFORTH (Creator, Scrollworks): One of the reasons why I started the orchestra was to try to make it a fun place for kids from all over the city, all different socio-economic levels and everything to be together and learn about each other and make friends and maybe change their thinking a bit.
LETSON: Goforth - even the name is inspirational, isn't it? Like go forth and make music. Anyway, about a year ago, Jeane, who's divorced with two grown kids, moved from a home in an affluent suburb to this struggling neighborhood. She said she wanted to be closer to where many of her students come from.
But not every parent is receptive. The neighborhood where Jeane lives is predominantly African-American and Jeane, a white woman, has at times been unable to make a connection with a few of the moms and dads. She was telling us about a young tuba player and a promising second-grade drummer whose parents never got onboard and forced their children to drop out. Then almost on cue her neighbor's 12-year-old appears at the door.
Ms. GOFORTH: I want to introduce you. This is my neighbor Neamiah.
Ms. GOFORTH: You just get home from school?
LETSON: Jeane says Neamiah's mother has been resistant to her attempts to get him into drum lessons. Sometimes in these situations it's just the hassle of getting the kids to practice. Sometimes, Jeane says, there's almost a resentment for creating expectations that the parents feel can't be fulfilled. Still, she was at least able to take the young man to the Joshua Bell concert the night before.
Neamiah didn't have anything appropriate to wear so he took his jacket plastered with decals and turned it inside out for the performance.
Ms. GOFORTH: Tell him about Joshua Bell last night.
NEAMIAH: It was good.
Ms. GOFORTH: See you later, Neamiah.
LETSON: Scrollworks relies on grants, donations and about 10 instructors who works for little or no money. Jeane proudly tells us that in December she got her first paycheck in the three years the program has operated - $250. Money is clearly not her focus.
She lives simply and lately she's been paring down her life even more.
Ms. GOFORTH: I would like to leave this world with nothing. I would like the last thing that I sell or give away and then I can die.
LETSON: But that's likely a ways off. In the meantime, there's work to be done and music to be made.
Ms. GOFORTH: I wanted to have a positive impact on the world. I don't care about being famous. That's not the problem I want. When I go, I don't even care if people remember me, but I want to know that I did something to lift humanity up somehow.
LETSON: Like helping to inspire a valiant effort at a music performance.
Ms. GOFORTH: And I can hardly stand to be at the recital because it makes me cry, seeing these kids get up there and, you know. This one little guy got up there with a tie that was about down to his knees trying to play the violin.
LETSON: Jeane's greatest success story might be Matthew Belser, a young African-American virtuoso of sorts who is now enrolled in the prestigious Alabama School for the Performing Arts. Helping him get into that school was important to Jeane, but just as important is the relationship that has developed with Matthew's mom, Leslie.
Towards the end of a long rehearsal day, they sit side by side on couch.
Ms. LESLIE BELSER: My friend Jeane.
LETSON: In some ways, the emergence of their friendship is exactly what Jeane set out to do with this program - finding ways to cross the divide, not just between the kids but their parents as well.
Birmingham is still living in the shadows of the civil rights movement. For Jeane and Leslie, their partnership was cemented one day on a visit to an old plantation. Jeane's first impression was how beautiful the fields were. Leslie had a different reaction.
Ms. BELSER: My first thought was slaves used to be out here. And in my mind I could picture it, I could picture backs bent and babies on their back. I pictured the whole thing. And so we started an honest conversation about those things - the good and the bad sort of things - and I think that's why we're close is because we're able to talk honestly, have honest dialogue.
LETSON: Therein lies the power of Scrollworks. The free music lessons are the gravitational force that brings parents and children of different backgrounds together. And as the kids get to know each other over time, the parents begin to talk. Then suddenly people are connecting, becoming friends with someone very different and yet very similar to themselves.
As Jeane and Leslie finish up, Matthew Belser, who hopes to major in medicine and music in college, shows up. We ask him just how many instruments he plays.
Mr. MATTHEW BELSER: Clarinet, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, flute, oboe, guitar, keyboard, drums, tuba, trombone - that's it.
LETSON: And then Matthew Belser, the pride and joy of his mother, Jeane Goforth and the entire Scrollworks program, pulls out his tenor sax.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: Al Letson is the host of NPR's State of the Re:Union. Our story was produced by Peter Breslow.
In the coming months, you can hear State of the Re:Union's full hour on the city of Birmingham on many public radio stations.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.