Every child dances to the beat of their own drum, but when they drum together, they create a rhythm unlike any other.
That’s part of the ethos behind Steven Turner’s drum-making events, which he brought Tuesday to Woodfields Elementary School.
“I’ve been a drum maker myself for 25 years,” Turner said. “It’s a piece of art that’s going to give back to them for the rest of their lives.”
Through a partnership among the United Way of Greenwood and Abbeville Counties, Greenwood County School District 50 and Turner’s company, Giving Tree Music, Turner was able to work with about 100 students at Brewer Middle School and Woodfields who have at some point experienced homelessness.
Turner has been organizing drum circles for years at schools, jails and hospitals as a team-building and emotional learning tool. He said he had gotten lots of feedback from people who wanted to learn how to make their own drums, so he started offering drum-making sessions.
“I hope on hope that when they approach a situation where they think ‘Oh, I can’t do this, that’s impossible,’ they’ll think about this,” he said.
Besides giving students a drum they can play and be proud of, the activity is aimed at breaking down social barriers. As students walked into the art room at Woodfields, they were encouraged to sit near their friends. Though shy and unsure at first, as the students began to sand down the pre-made bodies of their drums and tie-dyed the goat-skin drum heads, they opened up sharing their work with those around them.
In the red and blue swirling clouds of color on his drum head, one boy said he saw a blue spider, while a girl across the room from him made a speckled purple and green nebula.
“What excites me is the energy and the excitement that I can see in their faces, and just the awe of, ‘Look what we get to do,’” said Kathryn Butler, director of student support services for Brewer and Woodfields. “These children wouldn’t have the opportunity if it wasn’t for the United Way.”
Butler said students who normally might clash or have spats in the classroom were working together and complimenting each other’s work.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen the students this enthusiastic about anything,” said Mary C. Anderson, a social worker at Woodfields. “They’re really beginning to feel like they’re not just part of the school, but the community.”
This sort of social bonding is innate to drum circles, Turner said, and it pairs well with his wife’s business, Bess the Book Bus. Turner’s wife, Jennifer Frances, has a panel van that’s been customized to fit a small library inside, with enough room for children to walk in and browse the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. After she read a story to them, students from the Woodfields kindergarten classes had the chance to pick out books from the bus.
The books give students the opportunity to escape into their own worlds and discover new perspectives and stories they’ve never experienced, while also providing room for them to talk with friends and share their reading experiences with others.
“It’s creating that space where they can talk about things,” Frances said. “Creating a social environment that’s connected through these books.”
Tuesday was only the first day of events, with students putting the finishing touches on their drums on Wednesday and performing at the United Center for Community Care on Friday. In between, groups will get the chance to drum at Connie Maxwell Children’s Home and at the Burton Center, furthering their connection with the community.
“I’m excited about seeing those same children continue expressing that creativity on Friday when they’ll actually be playing those drums they made,” said UWGAC President and CEO Marisel Losa.
On Thursday, the United Center is hosting a community partner drumming event where the public is invited to come in and join in a drum circle and hear about this partnership and the goals the United Way is targeting with it, Losa said. On Wednesday, Brewer students will participate in the Stand Up, Speak Up program from Giving Tree Music, which uses Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to teach lessons and inspire discussion among students.
This is the United Way’s first time doing a program like this locally, Losa said, but she hopes to make it an annual event. It’s part of a larger campaign to increase community vibrancy and inspire pride, communication and understanding throughout Greenwood.