Even before singer Michelle Forman had musical aspirations, the Miami native knew she wanted to help others.
"Since I was a girl I felt I was supposed to do something bigger than me," the longtime vocalist of Afro-Latin fusion band Suenalo said. "I was always sensitive to people suffering. I always wanted to spread a message of love and unification."
On Thursday, June 13, Forman will be celebrated for doing just that when the Children's Trust honors her with the Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families Award at its 14th-annual Champions for Children event. The award recognizes "selfless and motivated individuals ... who have achieved greatness in their service to children and families in our community," says James R.Haj, president and CEO of the Children's Trust.
For the last ten years, Forman has worked with Guitars Over Guns, mentoring inner-city students at North Miami and Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle Schools as well as founding Guitars Over Guns' a cappella ensemble.
"I try to inspire them to be empathetic and responsible. We teach many lessons, all of them music based. It's beautiful to see the bonds created," she says. "I had a kid with anger management issues, fighting, getting terrible grades. Now nine years later, she's graduating magna cum laude."
Forman says she can relate to kids who have trouble following the rules. "I was a rebellious teenager. Teachers would kick me out of class. Counseling didn't work. But one person did get through to me. That mentor, Dr. Randy Addar, was the D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] counselor at Sunset Senior High. His mentorship inspired me to pay it forward."
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Forman also credits the many musical mentors she met in her 20s for her being an effective agent of change with Guitars Over Guns. "Nathan Jay had this house we called Monkey Village. All these musicians in Miami hung out there. That was my school. I learned everything from a variety of musicians." It was at Monkey Village that Forman met many of the members of Suenalo, the band she has been an on/off part of for the better part of the last 17 years. Through that musical collective, she met bandmate Chad Bernstein, who founded Guitars Over Guns in 2008, a nonprofit mentorship program pairing music professionals with underprivileged kids.
Forman felt a passion for the cause and made herself available to her students 24/7. "My forte is connecting," she says, emphasizing that she never had a formal music education. "Everything I know about music was self-taught or I learned from friends. I teach music as an outlet for all the negative things the students have seen in their short lives. It's social and emotional learning through music and arts education."
Though the work with the kids is reward enough for Forman, she said news of her receiving the Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families Award came at just the right time.
"I had no idea I was nominated. You go through phases you're not sure if you're making a difference or on the right path with the children. Two days after feeling that way, a letter comes in the mail saying I won. I was like, OK, universe. I hear you."