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Want a guitar? No strings attached: Program puts guitars in the hands of middle school students in Willmar, Minn.

Efrain Cardenas Jr., 11,?of Willmar plays guitar March 9 during the second week of No Strings Attached, a 10-week program that offers middle school students the chance to learn the guitar. Those who complete the program are given a six-string acoustic guitar as a reward. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

On this day, Room 142 at Willmar Middle School is no ordinary classroom. The desks are gone, discarded to every inch of free space to create a makeshift studio that for the next hour will play host to a collage of budding musicians. They are part of No Strings Attached, a 10-week music program through Willmar Community Education and Recreation and Whitney Music Center that offers sixth- through eighth-graders at the school the opportunity to learn guitar.

Any student who completes the full program receives a six-string, Oscar Schmidt by Washburn acoustic guitar, at no extra cost.

"We want to offer these kids something more than coming home and sitting in front of the TV and playing video games," says Wendell Nash, a guitar instructor at Whitney Music Center. Nash helped implement the program and teaches the students from 2:45 to 3:45 p.m. each Wednesday.

"Some of these kids would not ordinarily have the opportunity to do something like this. We want to give them the opportunity to discover something unique to them," he said.

The program, now in its third week, has attracted 17 participants, all of varying skill levels.

Among them is Trevor Knowles, 12, who has already charted a future in music; Sydney Peterson, 12, quiet and unassuming, but who rarely misses a chord; and Roger Gomez, 13, who punishes the strings with gusto.

"The students are so excited," says Aggie Meium, a child guide at the middle school, who helped coordinate the program. "You can feel the buzz in the room, their energy."

An outlet

Nash approached the school earlier this year about No Strings Attached and received overwhelming support.

He then spoke to his employer, Bob Whitney, about providing instruments for the program.

"Bob got on the phone with his distributor," Nash said, and "brokered a deal."

The distributor, Whitney said, agreed to provide slightly flawed guitars for the program at a reduced cost. A $5-per-class fee was established, with one-third of that fee going to Willmar Community Education and Recreation for the maintenance of the classroom during the after-school program. The remainder of the fee would go back to Whitney to help fund the cost of the instruments and materials for the program, with the goal of providing a guitar -- which according to Oscar Schmidt by Washburn's website, retails for more than $200 -- to every student who completes the course.

Nash's involvement in the program comes at no cost.

"I'm excited about this," Knowles said at the conclusion of the March 9 instructional. "I've wanted to do this for a long time. My goal is to finish the whole lesson. I wanna play in a band. It's an awesome way to express yourself."

Peterson agreed.

"It's fun," she said. "I'm learning a lot. I was in violin classes before. I think that helps. I practice twice a week with my stepdad's guitar."

Nash is looking to expand the program and is investigating grant funding in an effort to reach more students. He's adamant the program will continue.

"We could have the next (Eric) Clapton in here," he said. "But you don't know until they're given the chance to express themselves. You don't know until they pick up that instrument. For some of these kids, these lessons may stay with them a lifetime."

For more information about the program, call Willmar Community Education and Recreation at 320-231-8490 or Whitney Music Center at 320-214-9433.

Dan Burdett

Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.

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