Michael Smith hopes free guitars and guitar lessons can cut crime in Hollister.
He’s launched the city into a national program called “Guitars Not Guns,” which provides free guitar lessons for at-risk kids aged 8 to 18.
“A lot of kids are interested in sports, but there are also a lot of kids who are interested in music,” says Smith, 58, who also helped launch the San Benito Stage Company and the San Benito Arts Council. “We need to provide a platform from which they can explore their talents.”
The city has already had wild success with a baseball program called Junior Giants, which now serves 700 people. “It’s done wonders,” Smith says.
Guitars Not Guns provide instruments and instruction in a classroom setting. According to Smith, the city of Hollister is looking to offer the Guitars Not Guns program through its Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the San Benito County Arts Council starting in July.
“The Arts Council will act as a fiscal steward to attract tax deductible donations to help launch the program and eventually expand throughout San Benito County,” Smith says. “I have a passion for music, but growing up we had very limited access to instruments. I’m at a point in my life where I want to give back to the community.”
That led Smith to making a New Year’s resolution and goal to start a free music education program for at-risk youth in San Benito County. To keep himself accountable, Smith started posting this goal on social media. In his research, Smith came upon the Guitars Not Guns program, which has been a smash success in Monterey.
In March, Smith met with Stephen Vagnini, who is the executive director of the Guitars Not Guns Monterey Chapter.
“Stephen agreed to purchase and ship guitars, gear bags and music books to the Hollister Parks and Recreation Department at no cost to Hollister just to establish the program if they agree to meet the program requirements (Monterey County has a significant gang problem and law enforcement supports such programs as a deterrent to youth violence),” Smith says in an email.
Smith then got San Benito County Supervisors Jaime De La Cruz and Mark Medina to donate $500 each to help support the program. In June, the Community Foundation for San Benito County contributed $500 in support of the program. Smith says there are still challenges ahead, as the sustainability of a program in the Parks and Recreation Department depends on a variety of factors.
However, since the Guitars Not Guns program has had tremendous success across the nation—including locally in Monterey and Watsonville—Smith is confident the program can be just as impactful in Hollister. The Guitars Not Guns Monterey Chapter has been such a hit that they will be awarded the Nonprofit of the Year at the California Nonprofits Day and Celebration in Sacramento on June 28. According to the Guitars Not Guns Monterey Chapter website, the organization has donated more than 1,400 guitars in the past six years, serving more than 200 youths in 2017.
In addition to all of the people who have made monetary donations to establish the program, Smith credits Vagnini along with Hollister Recs and Park Department Director Tina Garza, Recreation Coordinator Nicholas Merolla and San Benito County Arts Council Executive Director Jennifer Laine for their hard work in trying to get the program started.
“Tina Garza told me she saw that the city of Watsonville launched a guitar program through the Parks and Rec Department, and it’s been very successful,” Smith says. “I had a conversation with Nicholas Merolla, who works for Tina, and they met with Jennifer Laine to develop a partnership. It looks like it’s going forward. According to Nicholas, they want to start the program on July 10.”
Smith says he only played matchmaker in trying to connect people together to launch a great program to serve the youth of San Benito County.
“I want to help local organizations, and I see great value of bringing Guitars Not Guns to Hollister,” he says. “It almost seems like too good of an opportunity to be true. I feel like these programs need to be promoted because they can make a difference for the kids who eventually will be the difference makers in our community.”