New Heartstrings initiative brings the arts to kids who need it most

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News
Bob Germain Jr., who helped the Heartstrings program with a foundation grant that will pay for its first five years.

A sailor-capped 5-year-old singing to an enthusiastic audience and a car dealer strumming his guitar in solitude 800 miles away are sharing a moment of personal reward.

She is starring in her first KidzAct production, learning comfort and confidence in a new life, and home, with her grandmother. He is decompressing from the responsibilities of being in the Germain family of auto dealerships.

They share another link. Because that longtime avocational guitarist, Bob Germain Jr., understands the restorative power of the arts, Ray'Niyah Stephens is dancing and singing with her tuition paid.

He is behind Heartstrings Music & Arts Program, a new initiative that gives foster children the opportunity to not only learn an art, but to dive deeper into it. The program is being administered though Friends of Foster Children Forever, whose executive director, Ann Hughes, sees it as a watershed opportunity.

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"Heartstrings continuously goes on. It’s not that the kid goes in once for a program and it stops. If they want to go on to learn more, they can," Hughes said.

"In the past, we would pay for some of the things, and some organizations offered scholarships. But not all of them did," she said. "And if you have two or three kids, it's nearly impossible to afford them."

Under the Heartstrings Music & Arts Program, classes, tuition and even musical instruments are provided. If the child wants to return to classes for a second or third — or fourth — session, Heartstrings is there for it.  The child is even eligible if he or she moves from foster care to permanent custody.

"Although I work, I am financially not able to pay for classes," said Sherri Bannon, who has taken custody of her granddaughter. "Omigosh, they’re expensive — $600 for two weeks of classes that are half days."

The acting classes Heartstrings has funded for her granddaughter have given her new friends and a broader look at careers. 

"For a while she was thinking she’d be a singer. Now she's thinking of being a fashion designer because she loves the costumes," she said. "She's saying, ‘Can I cut this dress up?' and if she's not wearing it any more, I let her do it. She’s creative all of a sudden — this fashion thing has really taken over.

"It truly has been a blessing," she said.  "All the kids who participate are really focused." 

"And she's met a group of girls who are truly wonderful," she added. 

"I am really, truly so thankful for every thing Friends of Foster Children Forever has done for me and everything they’ve done for my granddaughter. Everybody who donated I just thank you."

First, it's social; then it's personal

Germain would say that its social potential introduced him to music, too, but in a slightly different way. He recalled, with an impish smile, watching the screaming sea of females during the Beatles performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.

"We all looked at the TV and said, 'That's how we get the girls!'" he recalled. He began his high school band career as a drummer, then moved to string instruments such as the guitar and mandolin. It stuck "even after I got out of college. I've always had guitars and I've always loved to play and sing. I've come to realize it's the one thing in my life I've gotten so much pleasure out of."

Germain is no longer rocking a cover of a Rolling Stones hit. But his guitar has served him as both a social bond — "People say, 'Bring your guitar when you come for dinner' — and a form of relaxation that is close to therapy.

"I get as much joy out of getting up in the morning, having a cup of coffee and sitting in my music room with my guitar."

The arts are something you can enjoy all your life, he said.

Ray'Niyeh Stephens, 5, in the cast of "The Love Boat," a KidzAct production this spring

"It's such a great thing for kids to do," he said. "Especially for foster kids, it's a good way to fit in socially and to feel good about something. There are so many bad choices kids can make, but learning music and the arts are something they can get so much pleasure from that's good."

With that principle in mind, Germain determined to found an arts and music program for children in the court dependency systems. He invested in slightly different models for Collier County, where he still owns the family's original Lincoln dealership, and for North Carolina, where he now has a home.

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Here, instead of offering the classes within a dedicated facility as North Carolina planned, the children attend established programs, with fees paid by Heartstrings. Since Germain's commitment in January, the program has begun serving 10 but can go up to 30 to 40 children in classes from musical theater and acting to viola, piano and violin lessons.

It's not the only program for children in need Germain has been behind. For some 16 years, the company has been taking underprivileged children out Christmas shopping to buy gifts for their families, with lunch and a gift-wrapping session afterward. Even with COVID-19 restrictions, it was done, in a more limited way, in 2020.

Heartstrings is particularly important to Germain, however — so much so that he's funding it for at least five years.

"I am really committed to this program," he declared. "I want to see it grow."

Arts become a life lesson teacher 

Heartstrings has generated other tangential benefits.

"I loved how she experienced things that are going to help her, such as: It’s OK to make a mistake," recalled Rose Young, Ray'Niyah's grandmother, who has custody. She recalled seeing the children's reaction to the others as they performed.

"They were encouraging each other — 'Don’t give up. Go on to the next part,'" she recalled. "And everyone screws up sometimes."

That kind of revelation means a great deal to someone like her granddaughter.

"She has gone through a little bit of trauma so she has a little trouble expressing herself. She struggles somewhat with having confidence," she said. "Art is a way to process her emotions."

"This was God-sent," she said of Heartstrings.

Hughes noted it has also expanded the vocabulary of Friends of Foster Children Forever in its mission of educational and enrichment opportunities for foster children.

 "We're delighted to be able to say yes."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

For more information

Friends of Foster Children Forever: Friendsoffosterchildren.net or 239-262-1808