By Elijah Cummings, Special to the AFRO
Anyone with any doubts about the value of “OrchKids,” the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s instrumental music program for inner city students, should listen to what young Asia Palmer, a flute player in her 10th year with the program, had to say to the New York Times recently.
“The program has given me a voice,” Ms. Palmer declared. “I feel like I can be whatever, do whatever – strive.”
Strive and succeed she has. Back in 2013, I had the honor to be at the White House with Ms. Palmer as First Lady Michelle Obama gave her a hug and presented her with OrchKids’ National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
I cannot think of any time that I have been prouder of our young people or more hopeful for the future of our community.
Now in its 11th year serving our students, OrchKids is a year-round, during- and after-school music program designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for young people who live in Baltimore City’s neighborhoods.
Since its creation a decade ago by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop, OrchKids has grown from serving a few children in a single public school to uplifting more than 1,300 Baltimore City children in eight of our schools today.
In collaboration with several community partners, including Baltimore City Public Schools, OrchKids provides music education, instruments, academic instruction, and meals, as well as performance and mentorship opportunities – and it does so solely through donations at no cost to our students and their families.
Marin Alsop’s dream is for OrchKids to continue to grow to 5,000 students in the next five years, 10,000 in the next ten. We should be doing everything that we can to help her realize her dream for the young people of our community.
Our first step is to take Asia Palmer’s words to heart, to “be whatever, do whatever, [and] strive” to build on this empowering OrchKids initiative.
The Eddie and Sylvia Brown Family Foundation has taken that first step toward responding to Marin Alsop’s dream. It has challenged all of us in Baltimore’s African American community to match its $500,000 commitment to OrchKids through our own donations, whether large or small.
Up to this point, the outpouring of support for the Brown OrchKids challenge has been heartening – and important.
In a city where too many of our young people are feeling lost in the present, depressed about their future, and driven to join something larger than themselves, we all want them to join something larger that is positive and will lift up their lives.
This is why Marin Alsop’s goal is so personal for me.
People often ask me, “Congressman, when there are so many other priorities, why do you devote so much energy to supporting opportunities for our young people to participate in music programs like OrchKids and other initiatives like your annual Congressional Arts Competition?”
I could answer that there can be no higher calling than uplifting our children in life; or I could respond that music and the other arts feed our children’s souls, stimulate their minds, and help them become forces for good in our community.
Both of those answers would be the truth, but, in all candor, they would not be the whole truth that I remember, feel and see.
That more complete truth would have to go back to a lasting childhood disappointment more than 50 years ago – to the marching band in our inner, inner Baltimore City neighborhood that I was unable to join.
I intensely wanted to learn to play the trumpet in that marching band. Young, isolated, and bored, like far too many of our young people today, I wanted to join my friends as they proudly played and marched through our streets.
As a young person still forming my core identity, I desperately wanted to be part of something beautiful and important, something larger than myself, something above and beyond the harsh, isolated and constrained life that I was experiencing on Baltimore’s streets.
That is why I asked my Dad if we could rent a trumpet so I could play in the band. He was sympathetic, but it was not to be.
We could not afford the rental fee, he told me, and I tried to understand. Yet, I still felt diminished – like my life was worth less than the few cents to rent that trumpet each week.
I share this personal reflection with you today because far too many of the young people of our city look at me with that same intense longing in their eyes that I can still remember from my own youth long ago.
The calling that these young people evoke in me – a vocation to help them replace the longing in their lives with the joy of creativity – is almost overwhelming.
I hope that others feel the same. Together, we can create a positive song for Baltimore’s future. Together we can become an orchestra of hope in which everyone can play.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.