In 1999, on an ordinary afternoon, music instructor Liz Shropshire was driving to the home of one of her piano students while listening to National Public Radio. Shropshire, who has over 20 years of experience in instructing emotionally troubled students from four to 60 years of age, had an illustrious career as a teacher in Los Angeles.
But her afternoon went from ordinary to life altering after she heard one particular story that troubled her. The NPR news reporter was interviewing women who were thrown out of their homes in Kosovo and had to resort to living in refugee camps in Albania. The conditions of their homeland were abysmal — former president of the Socialist Republic of Serbia and Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s minorities and the retaliatory NATO bombings left them husbandless and sonless. All that they had left were their firsthand youngest children and the clothes on their backs.
After hearing their heart wrenching firsthand accounts, Shropshire felt obligated to do what she could to help. She decided to cancel her preplanned three-week backpacking trip through Europe and instead chose to dedicate her time to volunteering at refugee camps in Albania. Several people offered her money, but she initially turned it down — her only intentions were to volunteer for mothers and young children who had to deal with a water supply shortage and poor living conditions. But then a friend suggested that she could use the money to provide something unique for the children.
“That night I was talking to a friend and she said ‘don’t be stupid, Liz — don’t just go to go.’” Shropshire recalled. “‘Do what you do best: Take a music program to the children.’”
From then on, Shropshire began fundraising. She was able to accumulate enough funds to carry eight duffle bags holding about $5,000 worth of pennywhistles, harmonicas, drumsticks, music books, pencils and anything else that she thought would be useful for teaching the children music.
After spending somewhere between seven and eight months with the kids of Kosovo, it was time for Shropshire to leave –– but the kids weren’t ready for her to go just yet.
“At the end of my first trip, the children cried and said ‘You can’t go — you can’t take this program away from us,’” she said. “‘There are other groups here who are rebuilding our homes and giving us food, and we are so grateful for that. But this is the only thing for us. It’s the only thing that is feeding us inside. You can’t take that away from us.’ So I promised them I would come back.”
At that point, Shropshire started to lay the foundations of the Shropshire Music Foundation. It didn’t take too much time before others hopped onboard to help Shropshire achieve her goals. When she returned to the States, she gave a speech about her experience in Kosovo at a forum in Los Angeles. As soon as she finished the speech, one woman approached her and told her that she was an accountant and would be more than willing to assist her. Another woman told her that she was a lawyer and was willing to work with Shropshire in getting the foundation up and running. Thus, the Shropshire Music Foundation was formed.
Over the past 11 years, the foundation has expanded to Uganda and Northern Ireland. Instructors are sent to any of the three programs to instruct music to children of war-torn communities. Shropshire herself typically spends three months in each of the countries per year, while spending the rest of the year fundraising in the U.S.
However, the U.S.’s recent economic downturn has threatened the program over the past two years. Donations have become harder to come by and the cost of operating the program has increased. Last year, she was forced to temporarily cancel the program in Northern Ireland until they could raise enough money to start it again. This complicated her hopes of expanding the program to refugee camps in Jordan, Afghanistan and Haiti, so Shropshire then embarked on a nationwide stint to raise more funds for her foundation.
In 2008, a friend from the Eastman School of Music suggested that she speak with the students.
“A friend of mine on the music education faculty, Susan Conkling, invited me to speak to the freshman colloquium,” she said. “I flew to Arizona after the class. When I changed planes in Atlanta, I had a voice mail from Susan saying that the students who attended the colloquium had already formed a club called ‘Eastman for the Shropshire Music Foundation.’”
Voice performance major and freshman at the time Garrett Rubin started the Eastman for the Shropshire Music Foundation, with as many as 200 students joining the Facebook group. Junior Hannah Picasso, a violin performance and music education major, helped Rubin spearhead the group. Since starting the club, they have raised over $6,000. One of their most effective events was their “Peace-a-thon,” in which students found sponsors to donate money (pennies, nickels or dimes) for each minute they spent practicing. The minutes weren’t restricted to practicing an instrument; some students logged their practice time in sports, singing, etc.
With the support of Associate Dean Donna Brink Fox, Assistant Dean Abra Bush and Assistant Director for Student Life, Amanda Muskin, Rubin and Picasso were able to organize a benefit concert, scheduled for Strong Auditorium October 1 at 8 p.m. This is the first year that Eastman for the Shropshire Music Foundation will include the River Campus in their fundraising efforts. With groups like the Midnight Ramblers more River campus students to get involved.
“I would love to see the Eastman club grow, or even to see a UR club formed,” she said. “I plan to come to Eastman every year and would love to speak to other classes and student groups. A very important part of what we do is spreading the word about the effects of war on children. Everyone can help with this.”
There is no doubt that Shropshire’s job is highly demanding. With more than 100-hour work weeks, constant jetlag and nights of sleeping under mosquito nets in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit while earning less than an average college intern, some wonder what keeps her rolling.
Stropshire maintains that the rewards are far greater than any of the high demands.
“Loving, and loving and then loving some more,” she said. “The amazing, beautiful children. The brilliant, self-sacrificing teenagers. The families, broken and bruised but finding their way back to wholeness. I love them all so much. And their love has changed me forever.”