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.

Ann Hermes/Staff
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.

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

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.

"Many teens come to us struggling with low self-esteem," Rizkallah says. "Through connecting with other young musicians in Plugged In, they learn they can help others through their love of music. They gain confidence, compassion, a social conscience – and hope."

Some kids join hoping to become rich and famous rock stars. But soon, Rizkallah says, they set higher goals.

College student Chelsea Carter, who spent six years in the program, says her life changed – not just because she could play guitar or sing her heart out on stage at benefit concerts.

"I learned to work in a group, and to share my opinions and ideas," she says. "And most of all, to never be afraid to try new things – even if you make a complete goof of yourself – and to be outspoken about what I believe in."

Plugged In is more than a music program, says Jon Mattleman, the director of Needham Youth Services and an experienced teen counselor. "It's a place for youths to connect with one another in a noncompetitive way. That's why I love this program. If a young person isn't an athlete or part of a school-based group, there are virtually no places that offer an opportunity to grow and connect with their peers."

Plugged In's studio is classic "garage band," a cross between a funky wooden barn and an enclosed carport. On a recent afternoon, four teens – three boys on guitars, one girl on vocals and drums – and their teacher, professional guitarist and Berklee graduate Greg Reinauer, sat together learning new chords and working to get in sync with one another.

"I'm lucky to work with some incredibly talented and inspirational kids," Mr. Reinauer says. "I wish I'd had a program like this when I was their age."

Plugged In parents share his enthusiasm.

"It's been wonderful for him, especially in boosting his self-confidence," says Lonni Campbell of her son, Jim, who has been playing bass guitar in the program for six years. "Plugged In has helped him improve as a musician, but it's also empowered him to see how he can use his music to make a difference in the world."

"We provide a safe place for these kids," Rizkallah says. "They have so many pressures.... Here, kids can take risks, and they can be kind to each other. And that brings strength."

What about giving benefit concerts?

"That helps them develop their innate empathic nature," she says. "Every time, they rise to the occasion, if they have the opportunity to make a difference.

"And that, I think, is what Plugged In is really about."

• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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