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Sound Haven
The Philadelphia nonprofit Rock to the Future gives children a safe place to learn, appreciate music and “feel like they can be themselves”

by Leigh Stuart

Jessica Craft had been working as a performance analyst for the investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott when she felt a calling to use her talents for a greater good.

“My parents really thought I was crazy because it was kind of in the middle of the recession,” she says. “I was 24 at the time, and I had just bought a house ... but for me, it was just about wanting to do something I was passionate about.”

The lifelong passion she turned to—music.

“Music has always been really important to me,” says Craft, a drummer and member of the bands Conversations and Which Craft? “It really brings a sense of community and helped build my self-confidence growing up. You just kind of see that kids don’t really have the same opportunities that, you know, I had literally right outside of Philadelphia.

“I just had this idea of wanting to have an afterschool program where we use music as a way to get kids excited about coming in and doing better in school,” she continues. “I knew growing up [in Delaware County] that music would get me excited about school—that was one of the reasons that I would go to school regularly, just because music class was a blast.”

Craft participated in a host of music ensembles as a child, including drum line, orchestra, wind ensemble and marching band. She took all her experiences into account when she applied for seed funding from Women for Social Innovation in 2010 in an effort to move forward with her concept: providing underserved Philadelphia children with cost-free education in contemporary music.

She did receive the funding, and the nonprofit organization Rock to the Future (rocktothefuturephilly.org) was born. She, along with Josh Craft, her now-husband, immediately went to work with only 13 students and an operating budget of $15,000. The Crafts took odd jobs for the first two years the organization was in existence, working in catering, focus groups—“really anything that we could find on Craigslist,” she says. “I was doing this pretty much full time as a volunteer for the first two years.”

The organization caught a major break in 2012 when, thanks to a former coworker, the group found a benefactor in Delaware Investments, an asset-management firm based in Philadelphia.

“Every year they grant an organization a significant amount of money, so in 2012 I had the opportunity to go in and give a presentation and it was competitive, but they selected our project and we received $214,000,” Craft recalls. “It was a game changer for us. It really gave us a foothold.”

With this funding, she was finally able to allot salaries for herself, as executive director, and her husband, as program director. It also enabled the group to bring on additional staff, including a development director. Craft explains, “That’s what allowed us to add on the summer camps, to increase the afterschool program capacity, and then to also start these in-school workshops.”

The program, now five years old, is turning out tangible results. “A lot of our students have been here for three, four, five years, which really helps us keep them on track to do better in school, and because of that we’re seeing improvement in grades, improvement in PSSA [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment] scores,” Craft says.

That initial number of students, 13, has since grown to 35 students just in the afterschool program.

“We’ve been getting a lot more support over the last couple of years, mainly because we’ve been able to show that students like our program so much that they do come back year after year and they get so excited about learning contemporary music that they’re doing better in school,” she explains. “We’ve been able to show where a lot of our students have gone on to college, which is exciting.”

At present, Rock to the Future offers a host of programming options, from in-school lessons in partner schools to afterschool programming to summer camps.

This past summer, programming included a “Rock*A*Delphia” camp for ages 13 to 17 and a “Guitar Stars” camp for ages seven to 12. The camps focused not just on learning an instrument but also on songwriting, music theory and group collaboration.

Rock to the Future has also partnered with two schools in Kensington—Horatio B. Hackett Elementary School and Conwell Middle Magnet School—to offer electric guitar lessons for its students. The 15-student, 45-minute-long classes are integrated into the school day, and the guitars, which were donated by the Fender Music Foundation, are stored at the schools so students have the freedom to practice when they have additional time. At the end of the year, students have the opportunity to perform in front of their peers. Last year, Rock to the Future served 60 children in each of its partner schools.

“We are reinforcing what they’re learning in music class but on an instrument that they can get excited about,” Craft explains. “This year is the first year that we’re going to be doing a level-two guitar class so the kids who have taken guitar class last year now have a path so they can take it next year and strengthen their skills.”

Afterschool programming through Rock to the Future’s MusiCore is offered for students in grades six through 12. In addition to learning and practicing a musical instrument, students get daily homework help and a full afterschool snack box provided through the nutritional development services of the archdiocese. Rock to the Future staff even helps students with the college-application process, as needed. At the end of the year, students have the opportunity to perform at the city’s renowned World Café Live in University City.

About 70 percent of Rock to the Future’s students live in the neighborhood surrounding its Kensington headquarters, but the geographic area represented within the organization has grown to include young people from all over the city. Craft says, “We like to credit ourselves with the fact that we’re keeping kids on the straight path to success and also getting kids who may not be on the straight path, back on path.

“It’s definitely a music program at the core,” she continues, “but it is using music as a way to get kids excited about learning, keep them motivated, engaged and in a safe place.”

This “safe place” is among the most important functions of Rock to the Future. By providing its students with a place to go where they can be themselves and express their artistic inclinations, Rock to the Future creates a haven wherein young people can grow their natural talents and build upon them in a supportive environment free of judgment, one where growth and creativity are nurtured.

“I think it’s important that kids are able to get out of school to come to a different location to interact because there is a lot of baggage that they might carry from school,” Craft notes. “A lot of the students that come here frequently talk about how they get picked on or how they get bullied in school, or how they feel like they’re constantly judged or uncomfortable; but then they’re able to come here and kind of feel like they can be themselves and just open up and not have to worry about what other people are thinking about them.”

It is important to note that Rock to the Future is not just for star students or musical virtuosos. The only requisite is a child has the desire to learn and succeed.

“[Our programs] aren’t just for students who are doing well in school or who have good behavior,” Craft says. “We want to include students who are struggling in school, who might have behavioral issues, academic issues, attendance issues, and also kids who are doing well in school and have good behavior so that way we are getting kids together in a positive environment.

“Some students will definitely excel in music and some kids will go on to pursue music,” she continues. “But not everybody is the best at their instrument, and that’s totally fine because it’s just about making them feel like they’re a rock star or feel like they’re special, like they have a future.”

Photograph by Christopher Kendig

Suburban Life Magazine