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Four strings and a dream
There should be a sign on the classroom door: “Free ukulele to anyone wanting to play.”
But there’s four strings attached.
Pam Helm, volunteer at West Hills S.T.E.M. Academy in Bremerton, wants to see her Ukulele Club students stick with it for more than one lesson.
In fact, she wants to see them through the six months of lessons she plans for every Wednesday after school. At the end, if they’ve practiced enough, they will get to keep the ukulele.
“I enjoy playing. I enjoy singing,” she said. “I think music is really important for community.”
She isn’t a teacher, and she isn’t a parent of a student. Helm just loves to play the ukulele and shares it with the students of the school, free of charge. She has paid for the $69 ukuleles — for eight students — out of pocket, but also seeks fundraisers to help with the cost.
Helm, who also plays guitar, loves the little four-stringed instrument just as much.
“It isn’t just for Hawaiian music,” Helm said of the ukulele. “It’s really got a voice of its own.”
At the beginning of January, Helm had the students write down their goals and draw a picture of what they hoped to achieve by the end of the school year.
“I like how it doesn’t sound like any other instrument,” said fifth grader Evelyn Taylor of the ukulele. “My goal is to play a full entire song without making any mistakes.”
On Wednesdays, the students gather, ready to start the hour-and-a-half lesson. They sit in a circle, surrounding music stands. They can’t wait to get started.
This year, Helm has five students — two boys and three girls. To start, the group is working on picking the melody of “Hot Cross Buns” by ear. Another piece is a Nigerian song called “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” that Helm hopes the children will enjoy playing.
Zachary Kistner, 10, returned for his second year of lessons. He practices when he can at home, and he can switch quickly between notes while playing.
“My favorite part of playing ukulele is to make people happy, and so that way people can be joyful,” he said. “I really like how the music can be soothing and can also make you feel a lot of happiness.”
The Ukulele Club at the academy is just a small portion of the vision Helm has in mind. The bigger picture of what Helm is doing reaches far beyond the sounds of the strumming from the little wooden instruments.
In 2011, Helm founded The VanGo Project, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the arts. Her overall goal is to spread the love of arts and crafts — to students who might not otherwise have a chance — by using an old van to travel from school to school.
Aside from the Ukulele Club, which falls under performing arts, there’s visual, literary and wearable arts programs that are staffed by volunteers. She chose to start implementing the programs in Bremerton schools because of the high free-and-reduced lunch percentage rates. As of Oct. 2013, school staff said that 74 percent of students qualified for those lunches.
Helm wanted students to know they didn’t have to miss out.
“My favorite part is empowering the students and letting them try something they never thought of trying before,” she said. “There’s opportunity to take a risk with a safety net.”
The instructor is so dedicated to helping the students learn that she’ll even restring the small instrument for her one left-handed student. She’s even patient enough to re-string it back when the student says she doesn’t think the new way is working.
“I can tell if they’re practicing or not,” said Helm. In addition to giving the students their own ukulele, Helm hosts a graduation party for the students. She invites fellow ukulele playing friends to play for and with the students for their parents, she said.
“Pam has been a wonderful gift to our school, and it all started with an email from her,” said Lisa Heaman, principal of the school. “Pam is a true community partner. We could only hope more people in the community might be interested in sharing a passion, like Pam does, with our students.”
The VanGo Project currently serves students in the Bremerton School District and is an associated program of Shunpike, a 501© (3). To learn more about how to get involved or donate, visit www.vangonw.org.