By Emily Busam, Communications and Development Associate
A few weeks ago, AfterZone and Hub alumnus Raymond Fernandez made a surprise visit to the PASA office. Slung over his back was his acoustic guitar, something he carries with him regularly, a visible testament to his passion for music. He shared with us his more recent life experiences and how his participation in PASA’s Guitar Program with instructor Willie Stephens has significantly influenced his life trajectory. Now a music major at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), Raymond has taken his music instruction with Willie by the horns and made it into his education and life focus.
Willie is a figure in the after-school community. He has taught chess at the Providence Public Library for twenty five years and guitar with PASA and in the community for just over a decade. His unconventional teaching style focuses less on teaching young people a particular subject and more on helping them gain awareness of how to think. His commitment to the young people of Providence is unquestionable; he’s spent countless hours in the library talking chess strategy, paying for young people to compete in chess tournaments, leading guitar instruction, and mentoring young people through life.
According to Raymond, Willie is “calm, patient, and willing to sit alongside you and play.” As Raymond considers his own music career, he knows he wants to pay Willie’s influence forward by offering a “calm, healing presence” in others’ lives through music. He seems committed to that goal, as he is weaving music through every part of his life. Outside of his studies, he is a member of the musicians workshop “Rising”, and he can be seen performing at local venues throughout the community. Music, which started with learning introductory chords with Willie in the AfterZone, has become the portal through which Raymond expresses himself, finds connection with like-minded people, and creates community.
Perhaps when Raymond first entered the AfterZone, he saw the depth at which Willie appreciated music mirrored somewhere inside himself. In order to nurture that appreciation, he chose Guitar Program of the dozens of other after-school programs the AfterZone afforded him. Raymond’s perception of Willie would not have been far off, as Willie views music as one of the “deepest expressions of human nature.” His focus as a guitar instructor is how to get music out of students. “Maybe it’s something technical, or maybe it’s helping students find something out about themselves unrelated to music that they then channel into their music.” Regardless of what it is, Willie firmly believes that “everybody has at least one great song in them.”
For four years, Willie was Raymond’s regular guitar instructor through PASA, first in the AfterZone and then for one year in the Hub with Raymond as a student intern. “Raymond’s that kid that every teacher wants to meet. He’s hungry for knowledge,” said Willie. In fact, Raymond was so hungry to learn more that Willie began going to Raymond’s house on Saturday mornings to give him extra hours of guitar instruction.
After Raymond visited PASA, we gave him Willie’s phone number since they had been out of touch for a few years. On a Sunday afternoon, they reconnected as Raymond shared with Willie that he is now in college studying music, and Willie sharing with Raymond some musical inspiration and tips at Raymond’s request. Like always, Raymond absorbed every tip Willie offered.
For Willie, there’s nothing more rewarding than hearing that one of his kids is thriving in life. “People used to tell me that I was wasting my time, but time has proven them all wrong in that respect. I could’ve wasted my time on many things, but teaching chess and now guitar… those are the most important parts I’ve had in my life.”
One of the secrets to PASA’s success is that the young people have the liberty to choose their learning path. This agency allows them to gravitate towards the programs and instructors that inspire and support them the most. For many young people like Raymond, these PASA experiences fuel them long after they leave our programs. They remember the caring adults like Willie, who tells his young people, “I believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.” Imagine if every young person in Providence had someone like Willie in their lives. At PASA, we’re working towards that vision every day.