CINCINNATI -- Shawn Spencer spent much of his youth at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Youth Center -- sometimes overnight, sometimes for over a month. He makes it back once a week, now, to visit the children sitting where he once sat and offers them something he hopes will change their lives: Music.
Becoming an instrumentalist helped Spencer find his path in life, he said, which is why he started Bardsong School, an educational program for teen offenders who want to learn how to play.
"Maybe it'll keep a game controller out of some of their hands; maybe it'll keep a gun out of somebody's hands," he said. "Instead of going out, hanging out in the streets, they're at home playing guitar."
He and two other volunteers visit the center weekly and teach interested students to play a small number of donated instruments, which he hopes will engage them creatively and intellectually. After the volunteers leave, children with permission can check out the instruments and continue practicing alone.
Even if music doesn't become a lifelong passion for every teen who participates in the program, it does something important, said one young inmate: Fill the hours.
"All you need to do is learn to play," the 18-year-old said. "If you learn to play, it can take so much time from your day ... the majority of the day, we're in a pod, so for me to get out of the pod for at least an hour of the day or two hours is good."
That teen had been in the center for six months; others might spend even more time there, depending on their sentences. When Spencer was there as a youth, he said, basic home economics classes were on offer at the centers, but few of them had endured to the present day.
"Everything is stressed right now in the system," Spencer said. "It's failing children, and children are our future, so other people need to step up."
That includes people who aren't part of Bardsong, he added. Although the program appreciates donated instruments, its most acute need is for more volunteers who can teach youth to play. Anyone wishing to learn more can visit Bardsong School online.
WCPO declined to name the 18-year-old participant due to our policy against identifying juvenile offenders.