For a decade, the Grand Rapids chapter of this volunteer group has tutored military veterans and handed out dozens of guitars to bring music into their lives and help them cope. A Veterans Day story.
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If anyone needs evidence of music as a healing force, look no further than the former U.S. soldiers who’ve embraced Guitars for Vets.
Working with the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans as well as participants in their own homes, the Grand Rapids chapter of the national organization has tutored and “graduated” 76 area veterans who’ve received brand new acoustic guitars under the program.
“Music helps to provide comfort to those in need,” says Dave Kirvan, 73, a Vietnam War veteran who’s served as the Guitar for Vets chapter coordinator the past five years.
“I think it’s also helpful to meet with other vets and share our mutual camaraderie. … We do hear from some that this program has a deep effect on their lives and helps them cope with whatever their situation is.”
“That situation” can include post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries — something that Guitars for Vets aims to overcome by putting “the healing power of music in the hands of heroes.”
The national nonprofit organization was founded in Milwaukee back in 2007, partnering with a guitar manufacturer to help distribute new instruments to hundreds of veterans after they complete guitar lessons.
Marc DeRuiter formed the Grand Rapids chapter in 2010, recruiting volunteers to help teach veterans basic guitar chords and familiar songs. DeRuiter, a self-taught musician, now leads Eldermusic, a West Michigan organization which stages musical performances in area nursing homes.
Kirvan joined Guitars for Vets after his wife, Mary, suggested he donate an extra guitar to the group. He decided to volunteer as an instructor and later took over as chapter coordinator.
“I actually learned to play the guitar in Vietnam,” Kirvan says. “I bought a guitar for $5 from a Marine who was headed back to the world. I served with a fellow medic who had taken a guitar class at UCLA and he had his instruction information with him. That got me started in 1970.”
‘PUTS A SMILE ON EVERYONE’S FACE’
For volunteers such as guitarist and singer Ken Schepers, the power of the program is undeniable.
“Seeing another veteran wanting to learn to play guitar, and from not knowing what to do with his or her fingers to being able to play a lot of different songs puts a smile on everyone’s face,” said Schepers, who started volunteering with Guitars for Vets five years ago.
“To know people still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or being a double amputee, or both, and see them looking forward to opening their guitar case and jamming with new friends at night is a warm and exciting feeling.”
Over the years, the Grand Rapids group has staged concerts for Kent District Library and participated in the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts.
Although the 2020 coronavirus pandemic temporarily has put the program on hold — with the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans shut down for visitors and volunteers — the Guitars for Vets chapter does have a group of former students and instructors that gets together weekly to play and sing.
And the need to put more guitars in the hands of vets continues.
Those interested can help by visiting https://guitars4vets.org/ and donating to the cause. The website also hosts an auction for a custom Gibson Les Paul guitar, with proceeds going to support the program and purchase guitars.
The local chapter also accepts guitar donations. For more information, to donate an instrument or to participate in the program, contact Kirvan via email at email@example.com.
Any military veteran is eligible to participate and receive a guitar.
OTHER WAYS TO HELP
The Grand Rapids Home for Veterans has a “Christmas Wish List” of items that residents need. In addition to body wash, razors, personal care products, AA and AAA batteries, flannel shirts and long-sleeve T-shirts, the list includes music-related items: portable CD players, iPod shuffle and MP3 players, CDs (’50s to ’70s music), portable DVD players and DVDs.
Kosciuszko Hall, 935 Park St. SW in Grand Rapids, is collecting these items and more, and has set up a collection box at the hall. See a full list of items online here. Or, you can contact the Home for Veterans directly here for drop-off information.
Military veterans this week — from Veterans Day (Nov. 11) through Sunday (Nov. 15) — also can get free admission to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners (north of Kalamazoo). Get more information at gilmorecarmuseum.org.
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