Stereo RV: How The Power of Music in Foster Care Led to ‘Human’

An inspiring mission with foster kids

I wish I could count on one hand how many times women have asked me when I am going to be a mother. As a thirty-something (31), apparently I only have 4–5 years left to bear a child and experience the “beauty” of motherhood. Once I have a child, they say my life will make complete sense and I will have a new reason for living. Blah, blah, blah. Most of these women who tell me to “hurry up” are counting down the days to the weekend when the babysitter will come over and they can get sloshed because “damn it, being a parent is hard.” I don’t deny that they are over whelmed with the stresses of life; raising a child is extremely difficult especially, since many parents are having to take it on solo. I’m one of the few ladies left in my friends circle with zero kids. However, I don’t feel like I am missing out on motherhood, although I have not birthed my own children, I feel I have raised quite a few working as a mentor and skills trainer for at-risk youth in the Oregon DHS foster care system.

To give you an early view, I did not dream of working with human lives, especially youth. I was a pretty crazed out kid, raised in a strict home with both parents. I knew early on I wanted to have a career in entertainment, more so as an actress since my father constantly told me that I was yelling when I tried to sing. I’m literally the last person I would have thought to ever be in a field where it wasn’t about me — I was a very demanding child. Then college came and I moved out the house and apparently was a straight up mean girl. The girls in my dorm charged me $0.25 every time I made a comment that was offensive or inappropriate. I asked for this though, I wanted to become aware of how my behavior affected others. That same year I took an empathy test and scored 6 out of a 100. Basically I was the villain of anything that wasn’t about me. I also had no idea what the word empathy meant. I was raised on a “get up, get over it” mentality instilled in me by my parents. Survival was key, not how you felt about something. Oh, let me mention that I had siblings. I wasn’t just selfish for no reason! After a year of college I accepted an internship in Florida, got my first boyfriend, had my first heartbreak, wrote my first song. Writing music was slowly becoming my coping mechanism for navigating life. I wrote music for me, under the impression that I would be the only one to ever hear it. After two years in Florida, I came back to Oregon and worked retail, started going to church again and went through those emotions of figuring myself out. I first came in contact with foster care through a family who was fostering through a non-profit agency whom were attending the church I was going to. After a couple bible studies at their home they suggested that I apply to be a mentor, specifically so I could watch the five boys in their home so they could have a night off. I dragged my feet for months until I got an interview and realized I really wanted the job.

My first kiddo (client) was a 15-year-old girl who was part of the sex trafficking ring in Portland, Oregon. Selling sex was all she knew from the age of 11 because her mother sold her to the next door neighbor for drugs. Soliciting sex was how she survived. I would mentor several other young women who were introduced to this lifestyle at a young age either by their parent involved in prostitution or having crummy boyfriends that would end up abusing them either physically or emotionally, in some instances, both. Most of my clients have been abandoned, abused, locked up, in treatment facilities, experienced significant trauma or were born addicted to drugs/alcohol which left their brains like Swiss cheese; nothing connects. Yet, they want to find their normalcy. They crave family, friends, and love. Above all they want to be loved. However, they do not know how to receive love nor how to give it. In their mind, most are convinced that because they were thrown away by their parents that they are unwanted or undeserving of love.

By 2010, I had already been in the studio for a couple years and mentoring for a year. My first encounter with the importance of music in these young people’s lives was when I watched one of the young men I mentored share a poem that he wrote at an open mic. I was incredibly moved by his honesty and had absolutely no idea how deep his past was contributing to his adult life. I was naïve enough to believe that anybody could “get up and get over it.” I was wrong. Here was a young man bearing the darkest parts of his heart to a crowd who didn’t even know his name. He was looking for hope; validation from people who didn’t know him or his past. I took this kid into the studio with me and gave him his first opportunity to record his words. The gratitude and awe in his words and face made my heart experience a thousand different emotions I didn’t know were possible to feel. Could this be what empathy felt like? I had finally found a way to connect with these young people through my journey in music and recording my first solo project. This was my first real experience understanding the power of music. This young man started sharing every lyric he wrote with me and we would structure our sessions to where he and I could practice songwriting techniques and how to convey our stories melodically. This continued throughout the years with several clients. Most start with rap or hip-hop and write their feelings into rhymes. The most profound lyric I ever heard was “I wish I had a family, a family who loves me, a family who cares for me.” This youth always displayed a presence that appeared to the outside world that nothing ever bothered him. I asked him why he never discussed his feelings with anyone and his response was “no-one cares.” Music has allowed me the opportunity to connect with our most vulnerable humans. It has radically changed me.

Music isn’t just being used as a means to cope, it’s the soundtrack to their lives; it’s their survival and in some cases all they have. Music helps them connect with their past and pivotal memories where they can reflect on the good times; before DHS entered their lives. I have taken some of their poems and turned them into songs and recorded them so they can have a copy to take with them after our time together is done. They have been the ones to inspire me to write their stories and share it on a stage. Thankfully, the agency I work for have had some generous donors that have given music equipment for the youth who are serious about pursuing music or needing a creative outlet. As a mentor, I have been able to use outlets like Guitar Center to identify what instrument they would be drawn too, in most cases they pick up the guitar. I have been witness to watching youth become obsessed with learning their instrument. It’s helped with their focus and given them a sense of purpose. Sometimes, learning an instrument is their first glimpse at what a positive relationship looks like. The care and respect that develops as they nurture patience with learning the chords, cleaning the surfaces, repairing dents or scratches; repairing strings. These are all qualities we must look for when identifying our own relationships. Are we learning about the other person? Are we growing as we spend more time together?

Being able to teach children through an instrument has been rewarding. It’s the reason why I feel I have raised multiple kids. I have been there in their darkest moments as well as in their successes. My ears and heart are filled with their stories. They have changed me; music has changed me. I think any rational musician would claim they want the fame and glory as soon as they release their first song. That’s what I wanted. Looking back, I am so happy with where my path is going. If I can get one person to listen to our songs and tell their stories I am grateful. Music isn’t about any one person; it’s a means of connecting, sharing, understanding and finding common ground. It’s universal and probably the only thing humanity has in common. Using it for good makes me feel like some sort of cheesy superhero.

I’ve been able to see my kids grow and I am fulfilled. Not all have found their way yet, but many are on their way. I look forward to getting their phone calls or emails describing their lives. I also receive some that say “I should have listened to you.” Children always have a way of finding you even when they leave the nest. Now that our debut EP Human is out in the word, I feel like I am teaching others. I am also learning more and more about myself. Music truly is the greatest gift you can receive and give.

~ Myra Gleason, Stereo RV

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