It started with the saxophone in elementary school. Then the snare drum in middle school, the bass guitar in high school, the participation in jazz band, marching band, cover band.
Like many young people in America, Ian Felton used music to escape from a difficult family situation. Raised in Preston County, West Virginia, by an abusive stepfather in a "pony barn that had some drywall put up for walls and a few dangling light-switches installed," Felton says his school music departments provided the "only connection to something positive before being carried by a bus back to a bleak life."
Now 35, Felton escaped Appalachia after high school and pursued a successful career as the owner of a software company in the Twin Cities (he recently finished a contract creating software for a HAMP lender).
Two years ago he decided to get back into music. Felton started the Marching Mountains, a newly registered non-profit which collects used instruments from around the country and distributes them to public schools in the largely impoverished Appalachia region.
This August he delivered his first batch of instruments (WATCH a homemade documentary of this experience below).
"I work full-time and work on Marching Mountains on the side," he says. "I'm fortunate in that I've done well enough in my professional life to be able to take some time between contracts to spend on this...it's been so rewarding."
Felton handles most of the charity's legwork himself, from building the website to writing press releases to driving around Minnesota collecting used instruments from donors who email him.
Recently Felton appointed a board of directors to take his organization to the next level, and ultimately he hopes to expand the network out of the Appalchia. For instance, he is currently programming an online social network, which he calls 'Baton,' for band directors to connect with one another.
Although the organization has eaten away at Felton's "sleep and play" time and distracts him from seeking paid contract jobs, he says he feels more fulfilled than ever:
"Our society gives us all sorts of ideas of whats going to make our lives better, and most of us have tried all of those. But nothing been more effective in transforming your life and views than getting your hands deeply involved in something meaningful. You receive something that no amount of money, weight loss, or any of those can come close to matching."
WATCH the video of how Felton (with his mother behind the wheel) made Marching Mountain's first delivery of instruments from Minneapolis to Morgantown, WV, then to Harts, WV, Inez, KY, and back through Mt. Zion, WV: