CINCINNATI -- Almost 11 years ago, stay-at-home mom Karen D’Agostino was distressed to read about the daily violence on Cincinnati's streets.
“One week, I noticed we had murder cases reported daily," she said. "I looked at the ages and realized that many involved teens."
In an effort to inspire youth through music and steer them away from violence, D’Agostino, 47, founded the Music Resource Center -- Cincinnati.
The Anderson resident envisioned a positive environment that would be a refuge, a place where teens could take music lessons, do homework and make friends.
She researched local programs and found that there were few options for teens in grades seven through 12. She found a great model in the Music Resource Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was started with the aid of the Dave Matthews Band.
D’Agostino, a huge Dave Mathews Band fan, believed that a program with an emphasis on music would resonate with teens in Evanston and nearby East Walnut Hills neighborhoods.
With the help of private donations and grants, D’Agostino created MRC-Cincy, which charges members $24 annually.
MRC targets that group of students currently enrolled in neighboring schools.
Every day, approximately 18 teens come to the 7,700-square-foot studio for multiple visits from 2-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday. During summer breaks, the number of students can go up to 35.
Members can take music lessons in guitar, drums, bass, piano, voice or record their band’s songs, learn sound engineering, practice, make beats or pick the simpler tasks of doing their homework or have an after-school snack and hot dinner.
“Initially they come for the music but sometimes, they find they also have other talents. They make friends and we teach them valuable life skills,” D’Agostino said.
Even though she runs a music-centered nonprofit program, D’Agostino said she has no musical talent herself. She went from being a stay-at-home mom to working 70 to 80 hours a week with the creation of her nonprofit. She credits her husband, Tony, 49, and their four kids -- Madeline, 21, Isabel, 19, Harry, 17, and Francesca, 16 -- with supporting her.
“I am still a 'mom' when I’m at MRC, and while I run the studio, write grant applications and keep things moving behind the scenes, my biggest focus when we’re open is nurturing the kids,” D’Agostino said. “When one of our members walks into my office, all my work is put aside and listening to what they have to say is my top priority.”
During her six-and-a-half years of running a nonprofit, she said she's learned that it takes “time, energy, money, contacts, sweat and tears to make it a reality.”
Last year’s budget was $190,000.
And one of the most important lessons she learned was that it takes “a village to turn a vision into reality." So D'Agostino surrounded herself with talented, dedicated people. MRC is run by D’Agostino, two full-time staff members, one part-time assistant, eight volunteers and a dedicated board of 12.
John Curley, 50, who owns his own recording studio downtown called UltraSuede Studio, has been a volunteer for three years and describes it as “immensely rewarding.”
“I get to share their amazement as they discover they can create and perform,” said Curley, a former professional photographer who is the bassist for The Afghan Whigs and Plastic Ants.
He uses Apple’s GarageBand software to test the student’s musical level. It combines the "music of today" with beats and rap.
“You can do anything here that you could do in a professional recording studio. What’s cool is that students can enjoy themselves at any level,” said Curley. “Music is a pretty big dream. If you have talent and want to develop it, this is the place to come to.”
Students who excel at the beginner’s levels go on to work on their music to perform at the center’s events and create their own singles, which they share on YouTube.
MRC also has the unique distinction of hosting 95.7 MRC Radio (WVQC-LP), which is the only high school radio station in the tri-state, giving their members the opportunity to become radio personalities, too. They are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Josh Elstro, 29, MRC program director, enjoys seeing the students evolve as they grow musically and gain more confidence.
“Just seeing the 'light bulb switched on' moment in kids as they discover their talents is the most exciting thing,” said Elstro, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati and played the local music scene before coming to MRC.
One of MRC’s success stories is Ellen Pierce, 21, studies behavioral psychology at UC.
“I came here to find something to do, to get me off the streets and away from trouble. Then it became my sanctuary and my second home,” said Pierce, who started coming when she was a teen and produced her own single, “City of Wonder,” which is still on the center’s playlist.
Encouraged by D’Agostino, who she said is her "second mom,” Pierce started to sing in her church choir, got accepted to college and moved out of the neighborhood.
“This center offers students help. They should take it," Pierce said.
Lucious Greer, 13, agreed and said he “has learned a lot” by just being at MRC.
“I love making music and I wanted to be more experienced,” said Greer, who has earned the privilege of being at the "silver artist" level.
Students work their way from beginner to 'silver,' 'gold' and then 'platinum' level.
'Platinum' artist Sydney Steele, 18, dreams of making a whole CD. She's been coming to MRC for five years now.
“It’s only in this nice place that they help you in your pursuit of music and dreams,” she said.
MRC is open to any Greater Cincinnati student in grades seven through 12 and the nonprofit is always looking for volunteers to teach music lessons or to help out in other ways. For more information, contact MRC at 513-834-8304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.