Ben & I Play for Peace & the Veterans’ Guitar Project

By Kim PerlakBen & I

I met Ben in the summer of 2010 at a guitar retreat in Maui, HI. At age 12, Ben was by far the youngest participant, accompanied each day by his mom, Helen. As a former “youngest in the class” myself, I identified with Ben, and I really liked his guitar playing. So, on the rare days Helen couldn’t make it right on time to pick him up, I kept him company. One day, I asked him what he did for fun back at home in San Francisco. He said, “I play soccer and basketball. And I play guitar at this coffee shop to raise money for kids in Iraq who can’t walk.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah!” I said, “How much money have you raised?” He said, “$18,560.23.” I said, “Okay…”

As we became friends over the following weeks, I learned his story. Helen had become emotional while reading an email detailing the work of Brad Blauser, a CNN Hero who had teamed up with soldiers to help disabled Iraqi children in a project called “Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids.” Ben noticed and wanted to help, so Helen asked him to think about how he could use his talents. By the time I met him, Ben had been playing guitar at a local coffee shop a few times a week for three years. He told me, “I think that one person may not be able to solve a problem, but everyone can help to help.”

When I got home to Austin, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ben and his idea. I was teaching a college course in American Popular Music and Culture to 75 students who seemed already cynical about their ability to make a difference. I had an army of guitar students and network of musicians. I thought, “What if I could get them to help me help Ben help Brad?”

And, long story short, that is what happened in those first two years. Friends and students listened to my idea and responded with an offer to help. As our work continued, we received national attention from the media and official recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives. By the end of the second year, our team of two had increased to well over 200 and included musicians, students, politicians, clergy, media professionals, community leaders, and veterans.

In our third year, we wanted the veterans on our team to play a central role. Over the years, several veterans had taken my guitar classes—some for love of music, some for help with combat injuries or aid in their transition back to civilian life. Ben and I realized that we could shift our concert focus to helping the soldiers who had courageously helped Brad and the Iraqi kids. I saw an opportunity to bring my individual students together in one class leading up to the concert. I sat down with my student Randy, a 17-year Army veteran, and asked for his input. We met often and talked about our dream class, wondering where we could run it.

And that’s where St. David’s came in.

I had been playing guitar at St. David’s for several years, and had become friends with David Boyd. He had been following our project and saw that St. David’s could be a home for us. In the mingling crowds of post-11:15 a.m. service, he introduced me to Lynn Smith-Henry, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Army. Over breakfast tacos at Holy Grounds, we made a plan for what we hoped would be a long-term veterans’ guitar program.

Our first Veterans’ Guitar Class ran as a Journey Group in Rebecca Hall’s Adult Formation program. The effects of our meetings were profound. Class members found that guitar playing was helping with cognitive, physical, and emotional injuries, and their friendships in the group were helpful as they adjusted to being home.

At the concert, Randy gave a speech that brought everyone to tears. He said, “I would lay my life on the line for any of you any day. If I could go back into service, I would. Because I love my country, and I love the people that are in it. It’s people like Kim who brought the guitar to people like me, people who struggle with a traumatic brain injury or who are lost in society. She had the tolerance to put up with me and teach me to play that guitar, so that I can stand up here and talk to you.”

As I write this, plans are being made to continue this veterans’ guitar group through St. David’s. We also welcomed new friends at the VA, music therapist Jeremy Coleman, and blues slide guitarist Kirby Kelley to our eclectic team.

This project and its home at St. David’s taught me that the bonds of friendship and common purpose can transcend the barriers of distance, age, gender, race, and life experience. It reminds me that a complex endeavor can begin with one person’s idea and grow with another’s willingness to listen and contribute. Three years, hundreds of people involved, and $24,277 raised after that first conversation with Ben, our work continues to transform my life.

For updates on our project, please visit: www.benandiplayforpeace.com

Those interested in the next Veterans’ Guitar Class can contact Lynn Smith-Henry for more information. The class runs on the semester schedule and is free of charge for veterans.

To support the class through a donation, please give to St. David’s and label your donation: Veterans’ Guitar Project.

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