Today nola.com's Chris Rose described the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund guitar transfer (story here). Next month our charity is passing along a donated grand piano and good used car to New Orleans music families thanks to the help that's still coming in.
Jammin' Generosity of Two Families Places Guitars in the Hands of Young Rockers
By Chris Rose, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
Let us pause to consider, once again, the kindness of strangers.
There is a young woman in the north Chicago suburbs -- Wilmette, Ill., to be exact -- who cooked up a rather unorthodox plan to celebrate a hallowed rite of passage in her life.
Her name is Mel and, as her bat mitzvah approached this past May 31, she told her parents that she would like to forgo the bundle of cash and gifts that generally attend the Jewish celebration of a young woman's entrance into adulthood and, instead, would like to buy -- of all things -- a bunch of guitars for kids in New Orleans.
At the very same time, a couple of kids from the Discher family in Wheaton, a western suburb of Chicago, decided to canvass their neighborhood residents and businesses, soliciting donations for a trip they planned to take with their family to New Orleans this month.
It's part of a Discher family tradition, something they call their annual Donation Vacation, wherein they pick a troubled spot in the world -- hopefully one that's nice to visit, as well -- and they go there not only to sightsee but to help out in any way they can.
What both of these kids' families had in common -- other than the obvious Chicago link -- was that the parents in each case went online in search of a worthy recipient of their generosity.
Both considered but eventually eschewed the big dogs of the rebuilding effort -- the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, etc. -- and looked for something more grassroots. Since music was a common tie among all parties involved -- the two kids in Wheaton are both musicians -- they both happened upon the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.
To add to the serendipity of it all, the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund is headquartered in Illinois, south of Chicago in Bloomington. It was founded by a former New Orleans couple, Jeff and Karen Beninato, who evacuated there for Hurricane Katrina and remained.
The timing was just too exquisite. The Racenstein family bought 14 Fender Squire electric guitars. The Dischers asked the Beninatos what they needed most, so they made a list of accessories -- guitar cases, straps, strings, amps, picks, etc.
Put in touch with each other by Karen Beninato, the two families met last month in Rosemont, Ill., for the guitar handoff. Then the Dischers headed south for New Orleans. They arrived last week and, on Thursday afternoon, 14 New Orleans kids got outfitted with brand new guitars.
The giveaway was a little unusual not just because of the very poignant details of the donations, but because most music charities around here tend to focus on horns and other staples of the brass, jazz and marching band traditions.
"We didn't want to leave out the rock-and-rollers," Karen Beninato told me with a laugh at the Parkway Bakery in Mid-City, where the giveaway was held. "We're what you'd call an 'instant charity' -- what people donate to us, we immediately deliver to New Orleans. And we've brought down everything from saxophones to cellos, but this is the first time we delivered a bunch of axes."
The Parkway Bakery courtyard was abuzz with activity Thursday afternoon as the chosen recipients picked out their guitars from the selection of black, turquoise and even pink Squire models.
What most of the kids had in common is that they are the children of New Orleans musicians; this is one way to keep the music flames burning here. Eleven-year-old Olivia Huston, the daughter of local sax player Derek Huston, hugged her turquoise model to her chest like it was a favorite doll or stuffed animal.
It's her first instrument. She was wearing a Ramones T-shirt. I asked her what kind of music she planned on learning on it and she told me: "The guitar kind."
Yeah, you right.
Eight-year-old Dinneral Shavers Jr., the son of the slain New Orleans brass band leader, leaned on his new ax with a big smile. "This is my first real guitar," he said.
I asked him what his music ambition was. He said: "Like, I don't know. Jazz?"
Other Squire recipients hailed from equally notable New Orleans musical families -- the Frenches, the Andrews, the Allens and the Clemenses. Also, six guitars were being donated to the Lusher Charter School -- "the school of rock," Karen Beninato called it, a reference to the inordinately large number of musicians' children who go there.
Carson and Emma Discher watched it all with satisfaction. He's 12, she's 14. They're the two kids who solicited their neighbors up north. She wore peace sign earrings and told me: "It's cool to help people."
Their mother, Deb Discher, said: "We live by the motto: To whom much is given, much is expected."
And what we can expect around here now is the sound of ringing guitars. Courtesy of our friends in Illinois, strangers no more.