For many, music plays an instrumental role. Unlike words that require the use of pre-determined languages, songs have the ability to transcend barriers and bring people together with the same appreciation for a simple (or complex) tune.

Yuan Barnes, a former child in care, understands first-hand the impact of access to music and music education. “I was able to begin lessons because I entered foster care,” she explains. “I don’t think the idea of putting my brother or I in music lessons even occurred to my biological father, nor did we have the money for that.”

Using a piano donated by the Children’s Aid Foundation, Yuan was able to enroll in music lessons which in turn changed the trajectory of her life.

“It was something that I discovered I was ‘good’ at, that I seemed to have an affinity for,” she says. With help from the Foundation’s CIBC Miracle Fund, a program that helps kids in care access the life-enriching power of music, art, sports, and recreation, she was able to continue music education, and build a strong musical base. The Foundation’s  IGNITE THE SPARK FUND, founded by Mark Daniels and Andrea Weissman-Daniels, also supports kids with a minimum of three-year commitment to enriching programs that support programs in the arts and sports that encourage self-esteem as well as the development of passion and discipline.

Now able to play at least 15 instruments (including the accordion!), she views music as an important outlet of expression – particularly in articulating the feelings she found difficult to put into words. Going on to study music at the University of Western Ontario, Yuan references the Venezuelan music educator José Abreu who founded ‘El Sistema’ (a music program for children living in poverty) as an inspiration. Having access to musical experiences and music education is something that she strongly supports and believes in.

Richard Marsella, now executive director of the acclaimed Regent Park School of Music (RPSM), also discovered the power of music at a young age. He was 10 years old when he decided to take up the guitar. “I had a lofty ambition,” he says. “So I approached my parents and the rest is history.”

Having since become an accomplished musician, Richard (a Bramptonian by birth) has worked at the RPSM for four years, leading programs that provide high-risk kids from disadvantaged communities with accessible music teachers, instruments, and programs. “You want to offer the same quality of music education [to all kids],” he explains.

“You want to be able to offer that access to kids all over no matter what their family [or financial] situations.”

With an ambitious plan to reach just over 2,000 young people in Toronto who would otherwise not have the means to pursue music, such as those served by the Children’s Aid Foundation, the RPSM encourages young people to find their voices through specialized programs like its iPad ensemble and hand chime choir. By making ensemble participation mandatory, Richard says that kids are able to develop communication skills and bonds that become “like a second family.”

Offering traditional private lessons as well as a choir, the RPSM’s initiatives have been noticed by the likes of rock legend Roger Waters, who twice has invited the choir to join him onstage at the Air Canada Centre. “Our kids don’t forget any of it,” says Richard.

Like the members of RPSM’s ensembles, Yuan views music as an integral part of her life that she will carry into the future. While she plans to study law, she is still active in music and is even using it to perform publicly to raise money for wedding rings. “Learning how to make music, and particularly how to do that with others, has the power to stop us from being socially poor,” she explains, “regardless of whether or not we’ve grown up in foster care.”

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