KIDS IN A NEW GROOVE PROVIDES FREE, WEEKLY, INDIVIDUAL MUSIC LESSONS FOR CHILDREN IN FOSTER CARE IN AUSTIN, TEXAS
Words by Tess Campbell
Photos by Austin Richardson
As director at a national child placing agency for five years, Laura Wood developed a passion for serving children in foster care: to ensure that they have every opportunity other kids have. But so often that is not the case.
In early 2013, Laura met Karyn Scott, founder of a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, called Kids in a New Groove (KING). From a desire to set the kids up for success, no matter what that looks like, KING has a unique mission: to provide free, weekly, individual music lessons for children in the foster system. The weekly music lessons create space for a connection. “Mentorship is the real focus,” Laura says. “Music is just our way to connect.”
Music had been crucial at many points in Laura’s own life, and she felt a deep connection with what Karyn was trying to achieve. That May, Laura stepped into the role of program manager and began learning from Karyn. They developed a close relationship, and in 2016 Laura became the executive director, trusted to carry out Karyn’s vision for KING.
When Laura joined the team, they were serving 30 foster kids and had 17 volunteer music mentors. Now those numbers have increased to 200 kids and 140 mentors. The average mentor relationship lasts two years, and in that time the mentors become like family. “We have mentors who are invited to attend adoption ceremonies, and one of our kids was in his mentor’s wedding,” Laura shares.
KING provides a creative outlet for the kids and gives them a mentor to guide them through setting goals, to encourage them to work hard, and to help them experience some measure of success. The skills learned during the music lessons overflow into all areas of life, preparing the kids for the future. Children in the foster system are often not provided with many opportunities outside of meeting their basic needs, and there is an overwhelming lack of focus on a successful future. KING uses music to show the kids that they have opportunities.
On average, only 47 percent of foster kids graduate from high school. For the past five years, 100 percent of the kids in the KING program have graduated. Providing a music mentor does so much more than simply teaching them to play an instrument.
Often, the mentors meet additional needs as they bond with the kids and gain their trust. “I got a call from one of my mentors a few months ago,” Laura shares. “He had been driving his student home, needed to swing by the grocery store, and asked if the student minded running in with him. It didn’t take long for him to realize that the kid had never been in a grocery store” Imagine being 17, six short months away from having to be completely independent, and having never shopped for food. So, this mentor began taking the student to the grocery store once a month. He also taught him how to make a budget create a meal plan, and even how to drive.
The volunteer mentors at KING do everything they can to help their students, but there is a serious need for additional preventive programs to aid children in the foster system. The student mentioned above is just one of millions of kids in the foster system who are in danger of aging out at 18 and being unable to be self-sufficient. How many kids don’t have someone like the mentor who taught him so much? Because of the lack of preventive programs across the nation, when kids age out of the foster care system, they account for an estimated $300,000 each in societal costs through other government programs.
Laura and her team at KING have put together a strategic plan for the next three years, the overarching goal of which is to raise awareness of the need for preventive programs within the foster system and of the importance of creating the community these kids deserve. As the only program of its kind in the U.S. at the time of this writing—shocking but true—KING plans to expand to additional cities in Texas, and then nationally. In addition to in-home music lessons, KING is also implementing workshops for the students, including songwriting workshops to encourage emotional expression, and workshops to expose them to music-related career opportunities with places such as local radio stations.
When looking to start a program such as KING, there are a lot of moving parts to consider, and Laura cautions others, “There are so many obstacles. We follow Child Protective Services guidelines for getting our mentors into homes, and you really have to have strong mentor training to prepare them to handle the trauma that comes with children being placed in foster care.” The average foster kid moves six times, and each time they lose friends, school credits, and any community they were able to build.
Laura sums up the mission of KING by saying, “Ultimately, we want to make sure foster kids have every opportunity other kids have.”
For more information about Kids in a New Groove or to get involved, visit kidsinanewgroove.org.