The young residents of Carolina Youth Development Center, separated from family and under the watchful eye of social services bureaucrats, often can feel diminished, ignored, invisible.
And this takes an emotional toll, according to CYDC leaders.
They don’t get much attention, except from the dedicated staff of CYDC. If they are under 18 years old, their names and photographs can’t be printed in the newspaper or shown on TV, even if some accomplishment warrants a spotlight.
As struggling children whose families have failed to provide sufficient protection, they often long for attention, love, commitment — but the instability of their lives and the rules of the U.S. foster care system deny them this essential recognition.
“How do we keep kids from going on pause” while they are at CYDC, asked CEO Beverly Hardin. “How do you learn how to stick to it? How do you learn resiliency when you’re moving from place to place?”
Children who are orphaned or abandoned or unable to enjoy the care and protection of close family become accustomed to volatility, Hardin said. They can never be certain about what comes next. They are conditioned not to invest in anything.
But today, several young residents of the center are finding an important emotional outlet, a discipline that provides them purpose and meaning: music.
A happy partnership between CYDC and Carolina Studios, a charitable nonprofit mobile music program, has provided the center's children a chance to learn how to play musical instruments, sing, write lyrics and record songs. The activity gives them a way to process anxieties and emotional turmoil, and the opportunity to learn new skills.
About two years ago, after a series of collaborations, CYDC invited Carolina Studios to create a permanent facility in its Center for Life building, a room in which children can make beats, work on songs and record music. In the common area of the building, two part-time music teachers and a few volunteers, including Carolina Studios board chairman Mark Bryan, offer lessons and coaching to young residents.
Bringing the music
For about five years, Isaac McIntyre has taken Carolina Studio’s retrofitted music bus from school to school, giving students the prospect of creating and recording songs. A visit from the mobile studio to CYDC a few years ago proved to be so successful that it led quickly to discussions about how McIntyre might establish a more permanent presence at the center.
Cathedra Miller, executive director of Carolina Studios, said her organization got its start in the late 1990s offering an after-school music technology program. These days, guitarist and record producer Bryan, a member of the band Hootie and the Blowfish, is an active leader, providing instruments and equipment, tech support and training, Miller said.
When her team began thinking about setting up satellite studios in various locations, CYDC was an obvious choice, she said. “It turned out they were thinking the exact same thing.”
It took a while to formalize the arrangement, partly because of staff changes at CYDC, but eventually the two organizations found common ground in the Center for Life building.
When Hardin became director of CYDC, she immediately saw the potential of the music program to enhance the lives of her residents and provide them with badly needed self-esteem and confidence, she said.
Soon, there were weekly lessons and studio sessions. Local musicians such as singer Ann Caldwell, guitarist Roger Bellow and pianist Margaret Coleman were showing up regularly to work with students.
“Four months ago, I sat down with Beverly, and she said, ‘You need to be here,’” recalled Caldwell.
First, she brought her jazz ensemble so residents could remove their ear buds and understand how live music works, she said.
“I exposed them to the art of art,” she said. She also started teaching vocal technique and basic performance principles. “They are receptive! They are more tapped into the (feelings) than we give them credit for. They know how to express themselves. ... When they feel hurt, you see hurt; when they feel happy, you see happy.”
McIntyre is studio manager. Now he is working with about a half-dozen students at a time at CYDC’s North Charleston location and another three or four kids at the Callen-Lacey Center for Children, CYDC’s Berkeley County facility.
“We start with beat-making basics,” he said. “I let them get a feel of the sounds, then create their own beat.” Then they flesh out a song, writing lyrics and a melody, and record it in the booth. The result is a digital file copied onto a flash drive and burned to a CD that they can keep, share and build upon.
“I think it helps them express what’s going on with them,” McIntyre said.
One of the young residents, a 17-year-old, was recording a Demi Lovato song, “Skyscraper,” on Monday and feeling pretty good about the results.
“I’ve loved music since I was 6,” she said. “What I write is how I feel that day. I want others to understand they’re not alone with what they feel.”
Ambitions to grow
Miller said she hopes to secure more grant money so she can expand the music program at CYDC, hiring more teachers and providing more learning opportunities.
“The intention is to show kids that you could turn music into a career path,” she said.
The young residents of CYDC generally stay between nine months and three years, Miller said. Some remain only a few weeks. That presents a challenge in providing meaningful exposure to music-making and music technology, but the center also hosts a summer Freedom School that about 30 students from Title One schools attend, and they, too, have access to the studio and music teachers.
Miller thinks this is a good way to strengthen programming at CYDC.
“All kids love music,” she said. “All kids want to be Beyonce.” And teaching them how to summon the creative muse and channel their emotions and intellect can be therapeutic. “Come back in a year and see what it’s grown into.”