“Anything can be healed by music,” says Bill McAleavey, the Sacramento coordinator of Frets & Vets Six Strings Stronger, a guitar instruction program for veterans offered for free through the local VA. “It gives people a sense of purpose once they see what they can do.”
A veteran of the Navy himself, McAleavey is also an accomplished guitar player—he used to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band that performed at weddings and parties, although he admits they “never made any money at it.” Now retired from a career in health care finance (he worked for major medical centers like Dignity Health and Stanford, and eventually traveled the country as a consultant), the Swallows Nest resident turned to teaching.
After volunteering with a national nonprofit that McAleavey found wasn’t as
supportive of the local community as he would have liked, he turned to the VA. The agency was enthusiastic about the idea of providing guitar instruction to local veterans as a positive creative outlet.
“The lessons give the vets a reason to get out of the house,” McAleavey explains. Classes currently take place in a conference room at Mather, but there are plans to expand to McClellan and a veteran center in Citrus Heights once they recruit more instructors. “We require that vets commit to the 10-week course, but nothing else is clear cut. It’s not, ‘by week three, you must be able to do this.’ They move at their own pace.”
To participate in the program, veterans must be referred by their health care provider and sign a contract that they will show up every week for 10 weeks until graduating from the program. At that time, they are presented with a certificate, a new guitar and a “gig bag” carrying case loaded with all the “doodads” they could need, like picks and extra strings.
McAleavey says that 90 percent of the participants referred to the program are veterans with “service-connected issues,” such as PTSD or physical injuries from tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and more.
“Every war we’ve been in is represented,” he says.
The program’s first two students graduated in November and McAleavey hopes, as they beef up their volunteer corps of instructors (they currently have five), they’ll be able to serve many more. In the meantime, McAleavey is content teaching those he can as interest in the program grows.
“I like hands-on volunteering,” says McAleavey, who also serves on the food line at Loaves & Fishes with his wife once a month. “The vets are kind of like a floating target—you never know the situation you’re dealing with, so you don’t want to say, ‘Tell me about what you’ve been through.’ But because I was in the military and speak the language, sometimes I can get them talking. But most of all, the music helps them see what they’re capable of. It’s very rewarding.”
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Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.