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Helping teens be a real guitar hero – by caring for others

Sandra Rizkallah and Tom Pugh founded the after-school music program "Plugged In" to help teens start rock bands – and learn about serving others.

By Marilyn Jones/ Correspondent / October 25, 2010

Sandra Rizkallah and Tom Pugh, founders of Plugged In, share a laugh with student Kit Koeneman, left, in the organization’s band room during practice in Needham, Mass. The couple founded the nonprofit eight years ago to help students learn about music, risk-taking, teamwork, and helping others.

Ann Hermes/Staff


Needham, Mass.

Never underestimate the power of eavesdropping. As in listening closely to what kids talk about in your carpool.

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That simple act of really listening to her teenagers' conversations changed the lives of Sandra Rizkallah and her husband, Tom Pugh.

And, over the past nine years, the lives of about 400 teenagers.

Ms. Rizkallah and her husband would often overhear their children talking with friends about starting a rock band. But nothing ever came of those dreams.

"Kids may not have enough confidence, not know enough people, or may not have a place to rehearse," Rizkallah says.

One day, "I was sitting on the beach with my husband, and suddenly I just knew what we could do to provide the structure and support kids needed to reach their goals," she says.

That's how Plugged In was born.

Initially, Mr. Pugh had misgivings.

"But then I realized there truly was a need for kids to have this opportunity," he says. "I had studied bass at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and for a number of years I had played in bands as a professional musician. So I thought I could make a difference."

The couple hung up posters around town. They started with five teens.

And Rizkallah kept fine-tuning the idea. "That spark evolved into something much more powerful," she says. "We've always believed that true happiness comes by helping others. And I realized that music could be a vehicle for social action."

Now, three times a year, the students – 95 of them in 28 bands – pick a cause to support. At a town hall-type meeting, they propose causes and vote on which charity they want to help. It all culminates in a benefit concert at the end of each session.

Plugged In has aided groups ranging from Amnesty International, the Tobacco Free Mass coalition, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to We Care Solar, Seeds of Peace, and the Pine Street Inn (a homeless shelter in Boston).

Plugged In is a nonprofit organization. A combination of grants, private donations, tuition, parent involvement, and many volunteers keep it growing and enable it to pay a small staff of eight teachers, all professional musicians.

No teen is turned away because he or she can't pay the tuition. Rizkallah works full-time at Plugged In. Her husband, an engineer at WGBH, a public radio station in Boston, helps out as a volunteer by teaching, mentoring, and providing technical and management help.