fbpx Healing Through Music
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on January 29, 2024

For the past two years, Nexus-Onarga Family Healing’s therapeutic residential school, Grand Prairie School, has hosted a poetry slam for their youth. Jaylin, a high schooler at the school and a resident of Nexus-Onarga's Group Home, was the MC for the slam. One day, Monte Sier, Junior High School Teacher at the school, came to rehearsal and found Jaylin playing Nexus-Onarga’s Grand Knabe piano.  

“He was just playing…I was just really taken aback…he just seemed to be a natural in front of a crowd.” Even more impressive was the fact that Jaylin had no sheet music in front him – he could hear a song, and then play it on the piano.  

“I saw his stature and his presence, I just thought he’d be a good fit for the [Illinois Summer Youth Music (ISYM)] program,” said Sier “This was an investment, he had to show up very early in the morning five days a week in the summer, and I thought he was mature enough and responsible enough to do the program.” 

ISYM is a summer camp, presented by the University of Illinois’ College of Fine and Applied Arts School of Music. It offers over 20 different programs for middle and high school students to study music on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Each year it brings in over 1,000 students from across Illinois and 150 staff members together to explore and build upon students’ passions for music and give them a taste of college life. 

While Sier does not play an instrument himself, he has a deep appreciation for music, and the fine arts in general.  “I don’t play music, but I was raised in a musical home,” said Sier, “…I was really impressed by Jaylin’s talent, as well as his stage presence.”  

Another poetry slam performer also caught Mr. Sier’s attention. DeAndre, a high schooler and foster youth at Nexus-Onarga, recited a poem he had written. “DeAndre had the personality to be an artist,” said Sier, “He performed as a poet at the poetry slam, and he was very good…very animated with his performance…he just had the stage presence, like Jaylin, very natural at speaking in front of group.” 

Sier asked him if he liked hip-hop, and DeAndre said “Yeah, I happen to be writing some right now, I got a bunch of lyrics." Sier asked him if he’d like to do the ISYM hip-hip program, and DeAndre said yes.  

“Mr. Sier is constantly exploring avenues that bring unique experiences to each of our students,” said Tara Lemenager, Principal of the Grand Prairie School. “Nexus-Onarga is very fortunate to have Mr. Sier not only as an educator but as a resource for great opportunities such as this for our students.” 

Sier asked Jaylin and DeAndre if they would be interested in participating in ISYM, and they said yes. Sier helped Jaylin and DeAndre download and fill out the application and get the permissions they needed. 

The funding for the youths' camp came from YouthNOW, Nexus Family Healing’s employee-funded program supporting the needs, opportunities, and well-being of youth and families during and after their involvement with Nexus. 

On Jaylin's first day at camp, he had to do an audition that required students to play two contrasting, memorized pieces and sight-read easier short excerpts, to determine his placement in the program’s lessons and classes. “The program was really good because they had to audition, and the instructors would adapt to their level of ability,” said Sier, “they made it work for him.” 

Once he received his placement, Jaylin participated in private piano lessons, developed his artistry, and took elective music classes such as music theory, jazz improvisation, and ensemble music. He also got to attend recitals and masterclasses.  

DeAndre attended the ISYM Hip-Hop camp, another unique opportunity offered with this program. He was able to work in lab, studio, and workshop settings with experienced educators and musicians to produce beats, write and record lyrics, and prepare for a live performance at the end of the week. He also participated in activities that explored additional elements and foundations of hip-hop culture. 

DeAndre and Jaylin were transported to and from the camp each day by the group home and foster families to get the youths to and from the camp. “Everyone knew what a phenomenal opportunity this was, and without hesitation they helped coordinate everything so Jaylin and DeAndre would have everything they needed to participate in the camp,” said Lemenager.  

At the end of the program, both participated in the final concerts to showcase what they’ve been working that week. Next year, DeAndre and Jaylin want to participate again, and they both hope to stay as a full-time camper, sleeping in a dormitory, for the full college experience.  

Music Heals  

Through music, DeAndre and Jaylin have found a healthy outlet to express their emotions and cope with negative feelings. Music, and the fine arts in general, has been proven to be a healthy way for people to release stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms. By participating int he ISYM camp, Jaylin and DeAndre were not only able to learn more about their passions, but now they’ve become role models for other youths in their program – showing that through hard work and being vulnerable, you can overcome negative past experiences, and move forward in life.  

Mr. Sier would love to incorporate more fine arts opportunities at Nexus-Onarga's Grand Prairie School to help youths’ school performance as well as aid in their mental health journeys.   

“We don’t have a fine arts program here at the school, we have an art class, and to me at least, the fine arts are vital to humanity…. if DeAndre hadn’t been able to go to this camp, maybe he never would’ve known he was good at this…no one is ever going to know unless they try…we want to help our kids become well-rounded individuals.” 

Nexus-Onarga continues to explore ways they can bring the arts to the youth in their care. Last year they provided youth with their own version of “The Masked Singer”, the hit Fox TV show where celebrities come on stage in disguise and sing, and the judges guess who it is. The youth who participated dressed up, chose their songs, memorized the lyrics, and performed in front of the entire campus, including a panel of judges. The youth absolutely loved it.  

“The kids did their thing, and they didn’t know that they could do it,” said Sier “In fact a lot of them at the end that they didn’t know they were capable of doing such a thing, standing up and singing in front of a whole crowd of people…it’s an excellent distraction from the grind.” 

Because of their experiences with this camp, Jaylin and DeAndre now have the confidence to participate in their local public school’s music program and continue to explore their musical talent there, splitting their time between the Grand Prairie School and the public school.  
“This camp gave them the confidence to attend the public school, and put themselves out there,” said Lemenager, “It helps them feel more ‘normal’, just like regular kids who attend school”.   

As for the future, these youths will continue to explore music and try out new things. “I think it’s important as an educator to tell them that it’s okay to not know what you want to do now, and to try out multiple things…these youths are both so talented at many different things, and we want to help theme explore those opportunities."