Three years ago, Lee Urban – a former lawyer and elementary school teacher – decided that he wanted to spread the joy that he feels when playing the ukulele. He saw the potential for the instrument to do good in his community. He formed the non-profit Ukuleles Heal the World and, through a common connection, found LearningWorks as an entryway in to public schools. He wanted to reach children who couldn’t necessarily afford music lessons.
Lee values the collaboration with LearningWorks because of AfterSchool's willingness to commit to a full, uninterrupted week of ukulele camp. Students meet for 50 minutes for four days in a row, and on the fifth day the camp culminates in a concert. Urban feels that this allows students to build momentum and to learn at a higher rate, as opposed to meeting just once a week - as he has done with other programs in the past. "It's been very successful," he says. How does he know? "It's this," he smiles wide, gesturing to his own joyful expression, "on their faces. That's how I know it's successful."
And it has been. Since Ukuleles Heal the World first partnered with LearningWorks, Lee Urban and his friends have taught 15 camps with LearningWorks AfterSchool - at Reiche, East End Community School, Riverton, Ocean Ave., Presumpscot and Hall School. Through this partnership, Urban has given away 100 ukuleles, tuners and cases – each student walks away with their own instrument. The kids learn to help one another and to collaborate as well as learning responsibility through taking care of their instrument. Urban says that, for him, the greatest hope is that kids walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. And that they've had fun.
And they do have fun. It’s no surprise that the children enjoy their time at camp. As Lee says, “there’s no pressure in Ukulele Land.” Urban himself is immediately kind and disarming, joking by telling the kids, “We’re not going to practice playing the instrument. We’re just going to play the same song over and over again.” But it’s the instrument itself, he insists, that brings joy. When asked what is so special about the ukulele, he says, “It looks easy to play and it is easy to play. It takes 10 minutes to learn a song. 10 years to master it."
In the future, Urban hopes to keep doing more. Raise more money, reach more kids, give away more ukuleles and expand outside of Portland. He hopes to reach kids who never would have imagined that they could play a ukulele - or own one. Through these efforts, he hopes to, in his own, small way, help to heal the world.
Photography Courtesy of Hilary Campbell.