The first graduating class and instructors of the Guitars Not Guns program at San Juan Elementary ended their final lesson on March 8 with a rousing version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” in front of proud parents and assorted dignitaries. After a short ceremony acknowledging the work of the 10 students, they took away not just certificates of completion but their own guitars and the ability to play them as well.
“I got into guitars just before Christmas,” said student Mason Croucher, 11, as he was strumming a D chord. “I kinda thought having the skill of playing the guitar would be cool for later in life. The lessons here were easy, once you got the hang of it and the instructors would always be there to help you if you got stuck. And you get a brand new guitar just for showing up to every lesson! That’s incredible!”
For Mason’s mother, Michelle, it has been a blessing to see him so focused on his playing, particularly after hearing that her son was the first student in the class to master the first two chords being taught.
“He’s struggled in school so much and he’s struggled in sports,” she said. “And this is the first thing that he really took a liking to, followed through with and was really excited about. It changed him in terms of his schoolwork because it’s a motivator for him at school and we’ve definitely seen an improvement in both his grades and in his overall positive attitude.”
Jesus Garcia, 13, had already learned the trumpet and piano before attending the Guitars Not Guns classes and has come to enjoy the instrument.
“It’s like when you’re not in the best mood, you could play music to make you feel better,” he said. “And when you’re angry, you can use music to calm yourself down. It has been really fun and I think If you want to learn how to make music, the guitar will be a good first choice.”
This year was the first for San Juan resident Ramona Hill, owner of Credo Studios, as lead instructor and she was obviously proud of her students.
“This was just level one,” she said, “and there was a little bit of goofing around at the start. But they really rose to the occasion and shined today. It has been very encouraging. We are already getting ready for level two instruction and we are planning on expanding into Aromas. Our goal is for our community to have our own team and reach as many of these students as we can.”
Founded in 2000 as a response to the Columbine High School shootings, Guitars Not Guns is a nationwide program with 19 chapters in 12 states. The San Benito County chapter began in 2016 and this group of San Juan Elementary students have helped Guitars Not Guns reach a milestone.
“What’s great about today is that, as of this morning, 4,994 kids across the country have been through the program,” said Steve Harris, San Benito County Guitars Not Guns assistant director. “We just graduated 10 and with this class, we have brought the total to over 5,000 kids.”
Harris said people are sometimes thrown by the program’s name but it is not meant to be a political statement.
“We are not anti-gun,” he said. “There are a lot of responsible gun owners out there. We are anti-gun violence. And we’re about giving kids something else to do besides getting into trouble or going out there to cause trouble.”
Major funding for the program came from the Community Foundation for San Benito County in cooperation with the Youth Alliance.
“We have sponsored Guitars Not Guns before in other places,” said Community Foundation president and CEO Gary Byrne. “It’s a wonderful program and the feedback we got from the kids is just great. All kids love music and getting their own guitar, I think, is the beauty of it. They can now play it when they want and they’ll go from here to the next level. And they will just keep getting better and better.”
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