Harmonicas in a Southern Colorado Correctional Facility


Harmonikids Hohner-Sponsored Session to Aid Youth in a Southern Colorado Correctional Facility

As you observed at the end of the program, one of our students became emotional. I can't really divulge his story, or why he is here, but suffice it to say, that was a real turning point for him…
You really do make a difference in the lives of youth."
- Lisa Wilk, Education Director, Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center

On October 3, 2014 I brought my Hohner-sponsored Harmonikids session to the DeNier Youth Services Center; a correctional facility in Durango, Colorado. It was my fourth visit to this full-lockdown facility providing a nurturing environment designed to rehabilitate troubled youth detained by court order. It has become among my favorite facilities to provide Harmonikids services. Sadly, most of these teens are there ultimately as a result of abandonment, neglect, abuse, or violent childhood environments. Their confidence and self-esteem are likely shaken if not shattered – leaving them feeling broken, hopeless, and trapped. I checked my driver’s license at the front desk for a background check, and was led through more locking doors to the “pod” where the youth assembled in their school program. The nervous energy, tension and apprehension in the room was palpable as they were ordered to sit at attention - and within minutes, lessons from music made on harmonicas changed all of that.

Harmonikids provides youth such as these a healthy and positive form of creative expression and emotional release in this crucial time in their lives. Simply stated, the lessons often become an inspiration for these adolescents to grow, change, forgive the world – and themselves.  The harmonica often becomes a strong but gentle tool to help kids get back on track. Long ago I learned to never underestimate the power of using music and the harmonica as a magical instrument to reach out and make a difference in young lives. The following letters received from the director and several of the Denier Center detainees show how truly profound and emotional that effect can be – in their own words. Their eloquence and honesty are heartwarming.

Gary Allegretto
Founding Director of Harmonikids

From the Director

Hi Gary,

Well, you did it again this year. You really touched the hearts and minds of youth at the DeNier Center with your harmonica lessons.  I wish you could come here once a week, instead of once a year.

Your presentations are more than just lessons in harmonica playing. You really seem to have a way to create an immediate emotional connection with our students.

This year was most definitely special.  The students were at a high point after learning how to play harmonica for the first time, but then... something synergistic happened... and the energy in the room was palpable.

As you observed at the end of the program, one of our students became emotional.  I can't really divulge his story, or why he is here, but suffice it to say, that was a real turning point for him.  He has been focusing his attention on being a positive role model and made a decision that day to work toward his "Intern Status," which he accomplished last week.  He also downloaded some harmonica sheet music yesterday (with permission, of course) because he wanted to continue practicing and was getting tired of playing the same songs over and over.

I hope you continue to do what you are doing and return to DeNier year after year.  You really do make a difference in the lives of youth.


Lisa Wilk
Durango School District 9R
Secondary School Educator at the
Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center

From the Youth

"I am writing this letter to thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to come up to Denier and show us how to use a harmonica… I was really amazed at all of the things that you could do with it and all the songs that you can play. It’s not every day that you see something like that and that type of experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. Again thank you and I hope you come back soon."
- Tom

"Hello Gary. It’s Michael, the cowboy with all the tattoos. I still play that harmonica, it really is a lot of fun and easy to learn. I’ve figured out how to play without using my fingers. I’m learning some Waylon right now. I support your movement. I believe what you do for young people is a great thing. I’m glad to have the opportunity to send you a letter so I may let you know my appreciation for your visit. I’m glad I met you sir. Well I’ll send you another email and let you know how I’m doing when I get out. Thank you."
- Michael

"When I was younger I would just blow in it to make a sound.  Now that I know the notes, I can make music."
- Sean

"I would like to thank you for taking your time to come to Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center to teach us students here how to play the harmonica. I never thought that I would ever want to play a harmonica but once you came to teach us I became really interested in playing the harmonica that you gave us. I practice almost every day and I am getting pretty good at playing the harmonica. I have really great passion for music. My uncle is a rapper so I will be in the music industry with my uncle. I really do appreciate your time and effort to teach us how to learn how to play a new instrument. I also enjoyed how you came up and played your harmonica in front of all of us. Wow you are really impressive with your harmonica. Well I am going to end this THANK YOU LETTER by saying with much honor, respect, and service."
- Mark

"I just want to thank you again for coming to speak to us as students at Denier. Your presentation, music, and advice were interesting and informative, and the presentation was excellent. All together, it was a grand way to start our facilities early winter schedule. Thank you for sharing your music with us, and for showing us how to play the harmonica. Personally I’ve never been very good at any kind of instrument, and I never would have believed that I could learn how to play the harmonica. You are a generous and inspiring speaker. Thanks again for sharing your talents and knowledge with us."
- Mitch

"I would like to thank you and appreciate your time and effort for coming to our facility at Robert E. Denier Youth Services Center. You entertained me from when you showed us the train song. I also can’t believe that you got me to believe that you were using a harmonica that was blowing out of your ear. I’m glad you taught us how to use a harmonica, also actually taking the time to show us how to use it too. I know for fact we all didn’t feel like doing it but after us seeing you play we all got interested. I’m still learning how to play it but we are also using the harmonicas to play a song called “Lean On Me” every Wednesdays. Thanks for giving us advice and making us feel good and appreciative."
- John

"I am learning how to play better every day. I play every time I go to my room or even when I am just bored. It is a great thing that I have learned how to play the harmonica and I have enjoyed learning something new. I never played before and now I am determined to learn more about how to play. I was so jumpy to get to my room and teach myself. I am getting better every time I play and I enjoy playing. Thank you for coming and doing this. It was such a great experience to learn how to play the harmonica!"
- Chuck

* Please note - all youth attendees names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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