Niki Ebrahimnejad remembers how she and the other student mentors of Palo Alto Music Connection (PAMC) used to pay for basic supplies like reeds and sheet music for their elementary and middle school mentees.
"Volunteers had to often provide instrument accessories — a brand new box of 10 reeds for the clarinet, for instance, can cost at least $20 — and music books themselves for one or more students," said Ebrahimnejad, a senior at Gunn High School and president of Palo Alto Music Connection, a nonprofit organization that teaches basic music literacy skills to students in the Ravenswood City School District. "Additionally, when there was no one to drive us (to the school), the session was canceled because we couldn't pay for paid car service unless it was out of our own pocket."
These constraints deepened last year when the Palo Alto Unified School District cut off the program's access to the district's supply of instruments after the Palo Alto Music Connection received its nonprofit status and could no longer be considered an on-campus club. Mentors like David Leland, who volunteers to feed his passions for music and community involvement, resorted to using their own instruments to provide demonstrations for mentees.
"A big part of our mission is to give students the chance to learn an instrument," said Ebrahimnejad, who joined the volunteer group as a freshman. "If they never had the opportunity to even try, the students would never know if it's something they are passionate about and/or have a hidden talent (for music)."
Founded in 2010, Palo Alto Music Connection was a school club known as Gunn Music at Costaño, operating at Costaño Elementary School and entirely led by high school students. But when the Ravenswood district revealed plans in spring 2018 to convert Costaño from K-8 to K-5, leading to lower student enrollment in the after-school program, the board decided to turn Palo Alto Music Connection into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and shift the organization's focus to Ravenswood Middle School for the 2018-19 school year.
While that nonprofit status came with limitations, like no longer being able to borrow Palo Alto Unified instruments, it allowed the group to apply for grants for the first time. And through the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, the organization was awarded $5,000 to purchase instruments for the program and to operate at both Costaño and Ravenswood Middle School.
With two violins, two clarinets, one trumpet and two flutes, the Music Connection established its own instrument inventory. The organization also purchased essential accessories like reeds, strings and shoulder rests, which their mentees cannot afford.
"With the grant money, we were able to buy better instruments for our students and let them practice and hear quality music," Ebrahimnejad said.
Now 10 student mentors at each East Palo Alto school pair up with younger students for individual, hour-long lessons once a week.
The first semester revolves around music terminology, learning what each symbol means with the goal of being able to read sheet music. To aid the instruction, the Music Connection has developed a curriculum that guides the lesson plans and keeps mentors on track in terms of gauging student progress.
The second semester focuses on practice with the instruments, and for many mentees it is the first time they get to hold an instrument.
"A lot of these students have never been introduced to music before," Leland said. "We try to make it easy for them to learn by introducing the basics to build a foundation for them to go on and join band or another music program."
Kimberly Cheadle, an after-school coordinator at Costaño, sees the impact the program has on students and their excitement to learn an instrument.
"There are musically talented students in East Palo Alto students, but it's often too expensive for (them to have) private lessons," Cheadle said.
"The kids love it. They always look forward to Wednesdays when they have the lessons," Cheadle said. "There is definite excitement among the students."
The Holiday Fund Grant helped Palo Alto Music Connection realize its goal of raising its efficiency by ensuring it has a working instrument supply for participants and covering any maintenance fees. Ebrahimnejad also said the grant gave the organization financial stability, allowing them to cover administrative expenses like registration fees and bank fees.
And that's freed the volunteers up to focus on their core mission: sharing their musical knowledge in the same way that they learned from their mentors and instructors.
"Our program is special in that we try to be the positive instructors we had growing up and be role models for these kids to want to learn music," Ebrahimnejad said.
This year's Holiday Fund goal is to raise $400,000 for programs serving kids, families and others in need. More stories about the work of funded nonprofit agencies and instructions for donating to the fund online are posted here.