Community feature: Local musicians offer free guitars, lessons to at-risk children

Erica Thompson
Jonathan Elliott, left, and Ryan Lunka

For Ryan Lunka and Jonathan Elliott, attending high school in Chardon — a small town in Northeast Ohio — was like participating in a musical training program.

“There were like five or six bands just in our graduating class,” recalled Lunka, who now plays in Columbus indie group Local Tourists. “We used to play shows and parties around town on a regular basis.”

Elliott went on to form the Floorwalkers and Doc Robinson, both active in Columbus.

Their time in high school not only helped shape them as musicians, but allowed them to draw a contrast between their experience and the upbringing of kids less fortunate.

And when tragedy struck Chardon High School with a fatal 2012 shooting on the grounds, Lunka and Elliott became even more motivated to become positive role models for youths.

“It serves as a reminder that too many children are falling victim to gun violence,” Lunka said. “Even in small-town USA, there are children who are struggling and at risk for these kinds of terrible experiences.”

With that in mind, Lunka cofounded the Central Ohio branch of Guitars Not Guns, an international nonprofit that serves at-risk kids with free guitar lessons. Through partnerships with youth organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the local chapter has taught two graduating classes to date.

And on Friday, May 10, Guitars Not Guns Ohio will host a benefit concert at Big Room Bar to raise funds for more children. Both Lunka and Elliott will perform as part of the lineup.

“Little breakthroughs like learning chord progressions and being able to play on your own, that does a lot for your perseverance,” said Elliott, who has worked with children in other musical settings. “I've seen some of these kids really come out of the darkness.”

During a typical 14-week Guitars Not Guns Ohio program, kids not only learn basic chords but familiar songs.

“We usually get a good response from ‘Seven Nation Army' by the White Stripes because everyone who has watched an Ohio State game knows that song,” Lunka said.

Classes are limited to about 10 students with multiple instructors who can provide direct attention to children of all learning abilities. The organization is looking for more volunteer teachers. Jimi Hendrix-level skills aren't necessary; novices can apply. The most important attribute is a positive example.

“We bring in instructors who are strong role models,” Lunka said. “We target kids who face challenges that many of us do not have to deal with. It's so important to have people around them who are a good influence, who joke and laugh with them, and who demonstrate how to be successful — even if it's something as silly as playing ‘Smoke on the Water' on a guitar.”

Upon completion of the program, students are rewarded with their own guitars to take home.

“When you're 12 years old, life feels tough,” Lunka said. “Then add the additional risk factors that our participants have to experience. Having the opportunity to overcome something challenging builds a foundational confidence that the kids will bring forward to other aspects of their lives. Even if they never touch the guitar again, they'll know they learned how to play it once, even though it was hard. And that'll be important when they run into their next hard experience.”

Currently, the Guitars Not Guns Ohio program runs just once each year. It is Lunka's goal to expand to even more after-school programs, with multiple classes running throughout the year.

In the face of such a monumental task in preventing exposure to violence, Guitars Not Guns focuses on “one child, one guitar, one miracle” at a time.

“We're only going to be able to make a small dent in this problem,” Lunka said, “but that's so much better than doing nothing.”

6 p.m. Friday, May 10

1036 S. Front St., Brewery District

Big Room Bar