Guitars Not Guns volunteers turning kids into musicians

The sound of silence is no more. Youths are learning to finger chords and pluck out simple tunes once again through the Guitars Not Guns free music program in Contra Costa County.

The nonprofit’s guitar classes for youths went silent early on during the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, but this winter the Contra Costa chapter resurrected lessons with students learning the basics of playing music from a small group of volunteers. New classes will begin in Concord next week as the revived program rotates around the county, depending on available volunteers.

“We need this, especially after COVID,” Barbara Gorin, president of the nonprofit’s Contra Costa County chapter, said in an interview. “Everybody needs a little music in their lives.”

On Wednesday night, the first batch of graduating music students got a chance to strut their stuff during a short performance for family and friends at the Family Justice Center in Antioch where the weekly classes had been held.

“COVID impacted us, but we’re really, really happy to be back,” Gorin told the crowd gathered. “This is our first graduating class (since 2019), so we’re happy to be back doing this.”

The music nonprofit was started after a San Jose couple with foster children, Ray and Louise Nelson, discovered that playing the guitar could boost the youths’ confidence and self-esteem and steer them in a positive direction. It has since expanded to include budding musicians from all over who otherwise would not get a chance to take guitar lessons, which can be prohibitively expensive.

A formal nonprofit since 2000, its name was inspired by the fatal shooting of 13 people at a Columbine, Colorado, high school, and promotes ballads over bullets. Guitars Not Guns now boasts chapters in 12 states and Canada.

The grassroots organization relies on volunteers and donations to help underprivileged children learn about the pleasures of music.

Most of the children in this new session had never played music before, but one, Caleb Aragon, 11, brought the saxophone he had just begun learning and performed a solo, as they waited for others to arrive.

“Caleb brought his saxophone to class last week and played a little song for us and he asked if we could bring it today and I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Gorin said. “I love the enthusiasm. It’s been really cool.”

Caleb’s mom, Marissa Henriquez, said her son was lucky to get in when a last-minute spot opened up for the eight-week program.

“He was already playing saxophone and I saw how much he was into it and really loved music, so I thought it would be good,” she said. “There’s no cost. We’re unfortunately not people who can afford guitar lessons, so we were really excited.“

Henriquez applauded the volunteers who have inspired the children to play guitar and continue learning.

“The volunteers are great, and they really love music,” she added. “They’re passionate about music and they care. He’s even more excited and wants to try other instruments. … I’m so grateful to the program.”

Deborah McKim has volunteered with the program for several years because she “believes in it” and “it’s wonderful to watch them progress.”

“I want to keep sharing with the kids,” she said. “There’s nowhere out there to go (for free music classes). … We want returning students, or they can bring their brothers and sisters to the program.”

Many of the students in the Antioch program said they hoped to continue learning guitar, a task that will become a little easier since each one was given a free instrument at the end of the performance, some of which were donated and others purchased through the nonprofit.

Contra Costa County Supervisor Diane Burgis, whose late husband, Richard Clayton, volunteered as a guitar teacher with the nonprofit, encouraged the students to keep learning and to remember to thank all of those who make it possible.

“You know, time is so precious,” she told the students. “I want to just acknowledge you all for taking the time to learn a skill.”

Burgis also thanked the volunteers, some of whom traveled from Richmond to teach the weekly lessons.

“These volunteers are giving their time,” she said. “They are wanting to give you something, a little magic (in music),” she said. And I hope someday you’ll turn around and give some of that magic to someone else.”

Gorin said more volunteer teachers are needed, especially in the Antioch and Richmond areas. To volunteer or donate, or for more information about the program, call 925-785-8342, e-mail or go to

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