AARP 2017 Purpose Prize Fellow: Gary Eichhorn, CEO, Music & Youth Initiative

“It’s really not about the music. It’s about the kids and their development and their growth. Music is what gets them in.”

By JON MARCUS, 2018

It’s a typical afternoon at West End House, a Boys & Girls Club in Boston, where a cacophony of drumbeats competes with the sound of dribbling basketballs and fitness classes. “This is a relief of stress for me,” a 17-year-old enthuses over the din. Rapping and performing on the drums, bass guitar and keyboard “is how I express my feelings and get everything out. It gives you that confidence that you can do whatever you want to do.”

That’s the idea behind this Music Clubhouse and 17 additional ones in Massachusetts, Texas and Georgia. They’re part of a network being built by a retired tech executive and amatuer jazz guitarist as a way to draw in teenagers vulnerable to other temptations, who often drift away from youth centers like West End House and the other services they offer. “It’s really not about the music. It’s about the kids and their development and their growth. Music is what gets them in,” says Gary Eichhorn, that former CEO.

Eichhorn, 63, is leading a tour of West End House, including the Music Clubhouse that his Music & Youth Initiative has equipped with top-of-the-line instruments, recording equipment and iPads, on which the teens write their own songs. Music “is a logical magnet for kids,” says Eichhorn, especially at the ages when they start to forgo community centers for less productive distractions. “That’s when kids have a lot more choices but also when it’s most important to keep them here,” to get other services such as hot meals, homework help, and college and career advice to boost their odds in life. “The music is a really important way to recruit and retain them.”

Eichhorn’s music philanthropy was inspired, in part, by his own love of guitar, which he took up when he was 8 and dropped before picking it up again at 40 — “My midlife crisis,” he jokes. But he also brings his 30 years as a CEO and adviser to venture capitalists and start-up companies to the practical way he’s set up his organization, which provides advice and seed funding to partners that then must find their own sources of support and become financially independent within five years.

“Their job was to teach us how to do this. It’s got a great sustainability element to it,” says Daphne Barlow Stigliano, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth, which has Eichhorn’s music clubhouses at two of its locations, with plans for another at a third.

Eichhorn channeled his business experience into his music program after he and his wife, a retired certified public accountant with a degree in social work who serves as the program’s CFO, moved from an affluent suburb where their kids had attended well-supported public schools to Boston’s South End. That’s where, he says, they had “the real aha moment.” “We got a firsthand view of unfortunately how different things are for the kids in a city.” Music education was what young people in inner cities most requested, but youth center staffs didn’t have the expertise to provide it.

Because the Music & Youth Initiative works in concert with the many other services at its partner Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs, there’s no way to tell how many of its members who might otherwise have gotten sidetracked have gone on to college or achieved in other ways. But there are plenty of examples of individual success: the immigrant from Macau who didn’t know English but learned to communicate through music; the girl who suffered from anxiety and now performs at open-mic nights; the 16-year-old with autism who makes music with her clubmates.

“Once we got kids in the door, we could get them into youth-leadership programs and things like that,” says Frank Kenneally, who, as executive director of a YMCA in Lawrence, Mass., ran the first youth center to partner with Eichhorn. “When they found the music program and a place they could explore their passion, that opened the doors for them,” he says.

Elin Dahal was among the first young people to find their way to the Music Clubhouse at West End House, which is sandwiched between two housing projects. Before he went there, in high school, “I didn’t have a ton of motivation to do things on my own,” says Dahal, now 22, who graduated from college last spring and now works on a farm that raises produce for low-income inner-city families. “It was nice to come in and have people there push me.”

The program now serves about 1,000 kids, ages 10 to 18. Most come from single-parent families, and some 70 percent have incomes below the poverty line. Eichhorn plans to open one or two more clubhouses a year over the next decade. The slow pace is deliberate. “We’re much more focused on quality than quantity, says Eichhorn, citing a mantra from his experience with start-ups: “Nail it, then scale it.”

But he tones down the corporate lingo when he reflects on the results. “I’ve gotten to know many kids I don’t think would have graduated from high school, and I think the music helped. And some of them are pretty good musicians. You see kids, you meet them and get to know them personally, and it really ends up changing your life.”