Young Volunteers Leading the Way at Musical Mentors

By Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
January 24, 2022Updated: January 24, 2022

The picture of a volunteer of America may bring to mind older, seasoned citizens imparting the wisdom of their years to a younger generation.

But who thinks of the benefit an 11-year-old “mentor” can have on even younger children, who would be more impacted by someone close to their age?

Duff and Bonita Rowden have, do, and will continue to do so in the future. The couple found that pre-teen and teenage volunteers sometimes work best at their non-profit called Musical Mentors, started in California in 2007.

In the beginning, the San Juan Capistrano couple couldn’t help but notice there was some trouble in paradise among Southern California young people.

They saw kids tangled up in a toxic mix of mis-direction, unintended family crisis, bad choices, and lack of parental know-how just when kids needed it most—when they were very young.

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Intermediate students play at the Parents Progress Recital at Musical Mentors in San Clemente, Calif., in 2019. Maki (R) is the Volunteer Mentor for this group, having gone through the entire program himself. (Courtesy of Duff Rowden)

“These are youngsters loaded with potential,” said Duff Rowden, “but they are so often overlooked. Sometimes there’s trouble at school. Sometimes parents are stressed over critical life issues. Bonita and I knew that somebody had to step up and help them. Then we realized ‘somebody’ was us. We had to do it.”

Having something to offer troubled kids, though, was another story.

“I began wondering ‘what do I have that younger kids want, anyway? As a music pastor I play guitar and sing for a living. I thought ‘Kids might want to learn that.’”

And learn the children have, for nearly 15 years. Establishing their nonprofit also in 2007 Duff Rowden estimates Musical Mentors has helped “easily more than 1,000 kids,” with their beginning, intermediate, and advanced guitar and ukulele classes.

“Some of these kids can spend years with us,” he said, “because we’re about more than the music. It’s about life support.”

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Eric, 8, warms up for the “Progress Recital for Parents” at Musical Mentors, in 2008. “He stayed with the program for three years, and overcame many difficulties,” said Duff Rowden. “We were very proud of him.” (Courtesy of Duff Rowden)

“But the beauty is that it’s not just Bonita and me doing it,” Duff Rowden said. “Kids graduating from the advanced class were eager to turn around and help the newer, younger ones coming in.”

The Rowdens also discovered that at times these young mentors were more effective than they were.

“Though we do have adult volunteers when a 13-year-old pays attention to an 8-year-old beginner that’s meaningful,” Duff Rowden said.  “Young kids believe teenagers have absolutely no interest in them. When the older ones give them attention it makes them happy and gives their self-image a real boost.”

Volunteer mentors watch closely as each student learns to play a single note; then a bar of music; then several bars, repeating it slowly until learned. Then they tackle an entire song.

“Soon there is success and smiles! We call that ‘going slow to learn faster,’” Duff Rowden said. “The mentors love what they learned, and further, how they learned it,” he said.  “So, the process becomes kids helping each other obtain a common goal. That’s very satisfying.”

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Zack, then aged 8, went on to graduate with honors from Musical Mentors. Here he plays guitar with Duff Rowden (R). (Courtesy of Duff Rowden)

“For many of our mentors this will be the first time they’re in a leadership position. They’ve been entrusted with helping develop younger people,” Duff Rowden said. “When they see admiration and respect, along with impact they are making, they think ‘I am a big deal to someone.’”

They also pass on the critical life lesson of overcoming obstacles, he said.

“Even an 11-year-old mentor knows that music is more than playing an instrument. It’s about getting along with people.  If you’re going to play in a group you can’t be selfish. You have to focus, think about what other people are doing and do it with them.”

Bonita Rowden said entire families benefit from the process.

“We have two recitals each class and parents see their children learning a skill others don’t have making their kids feel special. Parents want to see their children smile, succeed, and stay out of trouble. It’s encouraging for the whole family.”

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Duff and Bonita Rowden started Musical Mentors in 2007 to “help kids learn how to play life right.” More than 1,000 youngsters have gone through Musical Mentor programs. Photo taken in 2021. (Courtesy of Duff Rowden.)

Duff Rowden easily relates to the debilitating angst good kids can experience through an unexpected crisis.

“My mother was driving our family to Disneyland one day,” he said. “There was a bad accident and she didn’t make it. My father, two older brothers, and two sisters were never the same afterwards. Home became a depressing, sad, and sometimes violent place. I was the youngest boy and overlooked. Music became my escape to a happier place. That’s what I see when I look at some of our kids. They need support, direction, and a new focus to give them some life, just like me.”

“We are here to help the kids with problems they can’t handle on their own,” said Bonita Rowden. “What we do is more than music. It’s soul repairing. The music is the vehicle for healing and encouraging kids.”

Be Like Zack

Musical Mentors encourages kids like Zack, who came when he was just 8 years old.

“Zack had already learned to quit,” said Duff Rowden.  “That’s abnormal for someone so young.

“I told him, ‘babies don’t quit when they’re learning how to walk. They fall a thousand times, but keep getting up. They don’t know even know how to quit. You can do what a baby can do, and not quit, right?’”

“He reluctantly agreed and learned to play the guitar step by step. And he did it!  He went through all our classes. Now I tell all our kids, ‘Be Like Zack.’”

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Zach, 17, in this 2017 photo was awarded the first guitar given by Musical Mentors. He became a volunteer mentor for two years. (Courtesy of Duff Rowden)

Bonita Rowden said, ”Beginning students are given new guitars if they complete the 16-week course and do all their homework. When Zach graduated, he was awarded his guitar and he went on to became a volunteer mentor.

“These are the ones new kids really look up to, because they are just like them. They think “If they can do it, I can do it.”

The lessons learned at Musical Mentors are transferable into all areas of life, Bonita Rowden said.

“Because Zach overcame his ‘quit’ mentality, he went on to do more difficult things and succeed. He became a proficient videographer.  Today, he’s a ranger for the California Park Service and he’s made some videos for them.

“We are so proud of him. That’s ‘learning how to play life right.’”

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