​In 1997, Sidney Goldberg, a social worker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS), asked a 10-year-old whether she’d like learn to play an instrument. The girl responded, “I don’t deserve music lessons.”

At that moment, Goldberg vowed to start a program of music, theater, and visual arts for children in foster care.  SOAR (Statewide Opportunities in Arts and Recreation) was born. DePaul’s Community Music Division got on board, along with partners that include Black Ensemble, Arts Excel, and Music Alive! (a music education program founded by trumpeter and DePaul alumni, Orbert Davis). Housed in the School of Music, the Community Music Division is a “school within a school” that offers private lessons, small-group instruction, and performance opportunities for adults and children.

“In the beginning of our participation in SOAR, we offered group lessons, but these proved somewhat inefficient because the kids progressed at different rates,” says Susanne Baker, Community Music Division founder and director. “Within a short while, we changed to one-on-one lessons. Now, we reach 60-65 children weekly; each student gets one lesson on piano, flute, violin, percussion, or clarinet.”

To fund its participation in the SOAR program, the Community Music Division receives a grant from the State of Illinois through IDCFS. The instruction is free for children in foster care.  IDCFS provides instruments; DePaul provides teachers. “Right now, all the teachers in SOAR are DePaul alumni or students (both graduate and undergraduate),” says Baker. “They have a passion for doing this.”

Lerryn Schaefer (MA ‘12) has worked with SOAR for 18 months, teaching violin to four or five students, ages 7 through 13, each week: “I really enjoy figuring out what gets each kid excited:  if one doesn’t really like classical music, I might teach him the theme song for his favorite sports team or reward him with rock-and-roll after he’s learned the music in the book. It’s fun to see the transformation of those students who start out saying, “oh, violin isn’t cool,” and end up being excited about the instrument. I could not imagine having a better job.”

Hanjin Sa (’07), who teaches piano in the program, believes that a love of music — and a subsequent lifelong relationship with music — is a universal experience: “Every child has a musical interest and curiosity, but many never have any exposure to music. With lessons, a world opens up. Music is like an important friend.”

One mother says the program is the best opportunity for her foster child to follow her dream of becoming a lawyer, a leap that makes perfect sense to Baker:  “Learning to play an instrument is a microcosm for a bigger life; the discipline of learning an instrument transfers to all types of learning. SOAR students have performance goals — we put on public concerts twice a year — and they can’t achieve those goals without focus, dedication, and hard work.”

Marceau Narcisse, adoptive father of three children who’ve participated in the program, agrees: “President Obama said that he has only two regrets: he can’t speak a foreign language and he can’t play an instrument. SOAR taught my kids to play violin and piano. Now, my oldest has a minor in music at St. Francis Xavier University, and my youngest — she’s 11— composes music for fun. SOAR was good for my kids, not just academically, but also socially and culturally.”

“Through SOAR, we’re serving the urban community, while nurturing the integrity and dignity of the individual,” says Baker. “Most important, our own music students are giving these kids the riches of music, and that’s a gift that lasts forever. That’s a gift that can change a child’s life.”