John Beaton is a passionate guitar player who has been volunteering at Covenant House Alaska since December of 2017. Once a week, he comes to the Youth Engagement Center to spend time with youth in the music room, teaching them to play the guitar. “I didn’t know what to expect when I started, but it’s been such a rewarding experience. There are times when I have a lot of kids come in and then some weeks, no one comes in. Some of the kids have playing skills already while others have never even picked up a guitar.” John wanted to get involved with youth initially because he was interested in becoming a teacher and thought it would be a good step in that direction.
John first heard about Covenant House when an old boss of his mentioned it in passing Since he had been wanting to volunteer his time, he did an online volunteer match to find different opportunities. He was matched with Covenant House, “it was as if it was fate,” John says, “part of the reason I wanted to volunteer by offering guitar lessons is because I struggled for about two years with really bad rheumatoid arthritis; I could barely move my arm. It was when I started playing again that Covenant House popped up in my email through the volunteer match website.”
When John comes in to volunteer, he meets the youth where they are at—whether they have never picked up a guitar, or if they already know basic chords, or even if they don’t want to actually play but just want to have a conversation. He has written songs with some of the kids, which he says always inspires him to keep playing in his every-day life. If a youth has never played before, he will show them a couple of simple techniques. “The go-to song that I teach new players is “Hurt” by Johnny Cash because it’s only a few chords. I love to pull the song up on Spotify and let them listen so that they can hear themselves playing next to Cash. They really enjoy that. Depending on their ability, there are some kids who will play Metallica with me. It’s pretty neat because it takes me back to my own youth—those were songs I used to play when I was their age. Even though I’m much older than them now, we can connect through music. I’m often surprised at how many different kinds of music the kids know!”
When John reflects on his most memorable moments, he thinks back to when he started,
“in the first couple of months, there was a kid who played the piano. They already had some music they were working on writing. I was able to help them figure out different arrangements—I would record it, take it home, and see what I could do with it. That really inspired me and kept me coming back. There was another youth who had just started to fumble around on guitar. Each week he would come in and we would play for about an hour. He got pretty good. Watching him develop his skills was pretty neat.”
John says he feels appreciated every time he comes in, “never once have I gotten a birthday card from my employers, but CHA has sent me one every year!” Even though there are some weeks where no youth come in to play with him, John loves coming in for his visits because he has never met an unfriendly person; the staff is always great and the youth are usually really nice and appreciative. As a dad whose routine includes going to work and spending time at home, John says it’s nice to break it up and interact with people and he’s happy to be able to help other kids. “On a personal level, you know, my kids know that I go down there to volunteer and always want to come with me. I hope that, even though they are still young right now (three under 11), that it will rub off on them and they’ll still want to volunteer when they become old enough.”
John plans to continue offering guitar lessons at the Youth Engagement Center for the foreseeable future. Many youth look forward to his visits each week and they love the opportunity to play music with someone from the community. They always feel supported by John’s presence as an instructor and comforted to know that someone cares about them enough to volunteer their time and expertise. Both youth and staff at CHA appreciate John’s flexibility and commitment to his volunteerism.