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Reformed gang member Anthony Hutchinson has found a way to pay it forward: with music.

At 15, he was already a hardened thief, had his own .22-calibre pistol, and was a member of a street gang in Burnaby, B.C. Little more than two decades later, the professional social worker with a PhD is the head of the Brampton Neighbourhood Resource Centre.

He credits a high-school mentorship and music lessons for his radical turnaround, and is doing everything he can to pass these benefits on to at-risk children in Brampton. That includes partnering with the Brampton Symphony Orchestra to deliver free violin lessons every Tuesday night.

Hutchinson's efforts are part of a giant invisible web of music programs – both during and after school – spreading to children and teens across the GTA every day of the week. These projects, workshops, rehearsals and concerts cross age barriers and overlook racial differences. Hundreds of dedicated teachers, professional musicians, volunteers and concerned parents are giving kids the tools to overcome the risks and temptations of life at the poverty line.

Ontario has a brand-new music curriculum for all children from kindergarten to Grade 8 (high schoolers can choose whether to participate in music classes). Many schools have established choirs and bands. The GTA has several specialized arts schools.

Beyond the official school day, kids can turn to privately organized groups and individual music lessons, available in even the most needy areas: the Jane-Finch corridor, Malvern, Rexdale, Parkdale and downtown Toronto's Regent Park.

Financed by private donors, foundations, corporations and government arts councils – and run by platoons of dedicated professionals – these options form a musical crazy quilt that stretches across the whole metropolitan area.

The need is clearly there. In "Toronto's Vital Signs," a massive social and demographic profile published in the Star on Oct. 6, the Toronto Community Foundation highlighted how socioeconomic disparities across the GTA have far-reaching consequences, especially in childhood learning.

In 2008, half of all Toronto District School Board students from junior kindergarten to Grade 6 came from lower-income families. One quarter of all those kids were not being offered any after-school activities at all. "Between 3 to 6 p.m., unsupervised children are more likely to engage in gang-related or delinquent behaviour, or become victims of crime," the report stated.

The foundation took this as a call to arms, teaming up with the school board to launch a new program two weeks ago. Beyond 3:30 is meant to connect middle-school children with meaningful group activities that range from basic literacy (Indigo is a sponsor) and a junior-chef course (coordinated by George Brown College) to music (taken care of by the non-profit Regent Park School of Music).

Foundation CEO Rahul K. Bhardwaj describes this as a "non-traditional, non-institutional, grassroots response to how do we get kids into positive lifestyles, leadership, good choices and nurture a love of music. It's all about feeding the children's soul."

For more information

There's a growing need to coordinate programs and information as an increasing number of Toronto arts organizations develop programs for young people. One such effort, still in its early stages is PAONE (Performing Arts Organizations Network for Education). It has a website (www.paone.ca) loaded with information on a number of interesting programs available to GTA youth and teachers. One interesting initiative is "T-dot," which has assembled free programs in fall and spring for 15-to-18-year olds across a number of different performing arts disciplines.

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