Guitars Over Guns is a non-profit organization offering students in Miami, Chicago and LA a powerful combination of music education and mentorship with professional musicians. It is a safe space for youth to express themselves through music and empowers them to make positive choices at school, at home, and in their communities. This dedicated group of people help their students overcome hardship, find their voice and reach their potential as tomorrow’s leaders.
Since its beginnings in 2008, the organization has served over 6000 students. Their surveys report:
- 98% of students have improved confidence & self-esteem
- 94% improved their GPA and attendance at school
- 90% share that their mentors helped them be more active during school.
Caleb Alcime, the Program Associate at Guitars Over Guns, joined the organization as a young teenager seeking drum lessons. What started as free music lessons after school took him to gigging and touring with bands all over the Miami area. After graduating high school, he joined Guitars Over Guns as a mentor and now works full-time. He is dedicated to giving back to the students what he received himself. He calls it “The Circle of Life”.
Hi Caleb! Can you tell me the story of how Guitars Over Guns started?
It all started when our CEO, Chad Bernstein, came to Florida from Chicago to get his doctorate degree in Jazz. With his band Suénalo, they went to a detention center in South Miami to speak to the kids and give them motivation.
These kids were coming out of tough situations, and Chad recalls that during the talk nothing was popping off. So they decided to play a little music and head out. But once they started playing, the kids began engaging, jumping in, and having fun.
One of the students at the back of the room started rapping, and the correction officers were trying to quiet him down. The band told the officer, “Let him be! Let him express himself!” This led to the whole center getting lit up.
This really inspired them. Chad partnered with our COO Jono De Leon and started the first Guitars Over Guns program in North Miami Middle School, where I first came to get my lessons.
So inspiring! And how do you help the community that you are serving?
A lot of what we do is simply uplifting the kids. We let them know that they can do anything that they put their mind to.
Many of the kids we serve come from tough homes and tough family situations, and Guitars Over Guns becomes a safe place for them.
I remember our last concert a couple of weeks ago. Some students came up to their mentors after the performance, saying, “I never thought I would be able to get on stage and speak my mind, to present myself in front of a crowd and get applauded for it.” They are running off this energy to this day. We want to build their confidence and their sense of inspiration. A lot of them come from neighborhoods where all you witness is turmoil. It’s hard to be inspired in that environment. Gun violence is on the rise, and we are losing family members.
So giving hope, building confidence and getting inspired are really important, especially in times like this. But dreams are really coming true over here.
Can you explain a little further the different programs you run?
Our main activity is to go into inner-city schools or any school that needs help twice a week and give free music lessons.
When the kids hear about free music lessons, they come. But to teach them, it’s crucial to create a safe space for them to feel comfortable.
So the first thing we do in our sessions is a temperature check. It’s usually called a fist to five. If you are feeling great, give it a five; if you feel horrible, it’s a fist.
Then we give out snacks and do emotional check-ins for 15 to 20 minutes. After that, we start our group sessions.
Sometimes, we get handed situations that we aren’t equipped for as mentors and young adults. In those cases, we have an in-house therapist that is a part of Guitars Over Guns. This section of the organization is called Empower, and it’s been very helpful, especially coming out of the pandemic.
And suppose the students need resources that we don’t have on hand. In that case, we reach out to other partners we have in the community that can provide food, housing or any additional social or economic help.
Every year, each school performs at a Spring concert and creates a music video at an industrial recording studio. We let them know from the start and work on their songs all year. We tell them they are recording artists now, and they need to prepare.
And when all the schools come together to make their music videos, it’s amazing!
That leads me to our Alumni Program. This is a program that I am part of. The program is for students who are no longer in high school and want to continue to play. They join our band, and we perform together.
I joined the band when I was 14 or 15 years old, and it was amazing to be playing all over Florida. Every weekend kids on my block would come up to me and say, “Hey, let’s do this!” and I would answer, “Nah! I’ve got to gig. I’ve got a show up in Key West or Jupiter” Guitars Over Guns really helped me get out there, and music became my life.
But Guitars Over Guns is not just about music. It teaches you how to become an incredible human and gives you practical tools to help you succeed in life. So we built our Rise Program. We teach music but can’t prepare every student to become the next rockstar or A$AP Rocky. We just want to help students to grow into themselves.
So for the kids who just play music as a hobby, we partner them with an adult who can advise them on the next steps of their lives. Whether it’s college or a career step, each student, when they graduate high school at the age of 18, has decisions to make.
This is a really well rounded set of programs! And I know that you joined Guitars Over Guns as a student yourself. Can you tell me about your journey with the organization?
I call it the Circle Of Life. It started in 2014, and I wanted to play the drums. But drum lessons are expensive, and my family didn’t have much money. So I started playing at the church. But to play at the church, you have to be very quick on your feet. I really needed lessons.
I saw my homie, Gabriel Pierre, now on the board of directors at Guitars Over Guns, coming to church and playing everything. I was curious and asked where he had learned. He told me about Guitars Over Guns and the free lessons he was getting.
So I followed him after school to North Miami Middle School. When I met all the musicians giving free lessons, I was shook. I sat down with Aral, my first drum instructor, and immediately got locked in.
We formed the first alum band when I was in High School, and we had access to some of the best Miami musicians. The best part was to be able to get to their gates. They would pick us up, bring us to a gig, and we would experience a musician’s life. They would teach us how to approach a gig on the ride home after they had crushed it. And a few months later, I was beside them playing on stage.
As I advanced at playing the drums, I became a peer mentor and helped my mentors teach younger students. And after I graduated, I came back as a full-time mentor.
Eventually, I became a program associate, which is what I do now. I make sure all 46 mentors in our 20 schools throughout the Miami region have the necessary needs for the kids to get the best experience they can get.
That’s beautiful! You mentioned the pandemic earlier. How did lockdown and Covid-19 affect and change the work that you do?
We were on a field trip when we got the news that we had to cancel because of a virus. At first, I didn’t think much of it. We got back and had an emergency meeting; that’s when I understood the severity of Covid.
We had to make a huge transition to keep doing the work. We decided to keep all of our lessons but to do it on zoom. It’s hard to give music lessons online, and we had to deliver instruments to every student to ensure they could play to learn on zoom.
It was tough, but we did it! This is our mission statement: we are here for the kids. We wanted to ensure we were there for the kids, especially during that time, because being locked up in your house is not fun.
That is a huge effort! What is the most important thing to know about Guitars Over Guns?
The number one thing to know about Guitars Over Guns is that the kids’ voices matter. We put the ball in the kids’ hands. They can do what they want to because it’s their life. And we are here to empower them and help them become what they want to be.
Our goal is to empower the future. With everything going on in the world, it’s sometimes scary thinking about the future. But working with Guitars Over Guns keeps me relaxed because these kids are so dope. And they are our next generation leaders. It’s our job to prepare them for what’s to come.
So we create a space for the kids to be themselves.
That’s amazing! And what are the challenges that Guitars Over Guns has faced? And how have you overcome them?
Last year we had a lot of challenges. We lost a lot of students. Some to gun violence in Chicago and some to natural deaths.
One of my mentees actually passed away last year. I met Celestin in 2017 during my first year of mentoring; he was like a little brother to me. We’re both Haitian and grew up in Haitian churches; we both know what it is like to be Haitian in Miami. We did lessons together every week, and sometimes we linked up just to chill.
I still hold on to his text where he wrote, “Yo, thank you for everything you’re doing in my life. I don’t know what I would be if it hadn’t been for you or Guitars Over Guns.” You pour into these students, and for them to be taken away, it’s hard to navigate, and it can be really discouraging. It’s bittersweet when you saw the potential and then you lose them.
And in Chicago, we lost a couple of students to gun violence. It’s a reminder of why we do this work. A lot of these kids end up in bad situations after school. These two hours after school, we ensure that they have something to do instead of something negative. That is why we are called Guitars Over Guns.
We’ve been through a lot as an organization. Losing a student is not easy. It’s like losing a child. When something like this happens, the whole organization takes a hit. And as a team, we have to support each other. I am very thankful to them for giving me the time to grieve and the support.
And I hate to say it, but it is through tough times like these that also grounds us in reality and pushes us to go harder. You never know when it might be a kid’s last day. We want to make sure they have the best experience every time.
That’s tough, and I’m sorry to hear about Celestin and the other students you’ve lost. How do you envision the future of the organization amidst all of this?
I know that the future is bright because our mission is about putting the kids first.
We are looking to expand to more cities. We are already in Chicago and LA. We want to replicate what we’ve got going on here in Miami.
It is scary also when going through what the organization has gone through. It is a big task to give each kid the best experience, so they can have what I was given. But what is comforting is our phenomenal team. Our mentors go above and beyond for their students. Families are inviting them to wedding ceremonies, family cookouts, and graduation events. They appreciate what the mentors are doing for their children.
I’m thinking of all the students who graduated this year. All our mentors were in the bleachers screaming their names and supporting them. So I’m excited about the future because we have people willing to do the work.
We believe that every person we interview is inspiring, so I’d like to turn the question back to you and ask you who inspires you?
I only do this work because somebody did it for me. My bosses are the people who inspire me. As a young person growing up in this organization, I remember when I first started working with them at 18 years old and seeing how hard they work.
Once, after getting hired, I called my boss and asked him, “Why do you care?” We sat down for an hour, and he told me why he does the work he does. He said, “When I was a student, I had a mentor who gave me the knowledge to become successful, so I decided to pass it down, and now you have that knowledge too.”
And now I get the chance to give it to somebody. Hopefully, this person gives it to somebody else and continues the trend.
The whole team at Guitars Over Guns inspires me to do better and become the best person I can be. No matter what, we come together and get through all of it.
How to find and support Guitars Over Guns?
You can visit their website guitarsoverguns.org where you can sign up to their newsletter and follow their music videos and events. You can also follow Guitars Over Guns on social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and find their videos on YouTube.